Saturday, 3 September 2011
Theatre Review: "A Midsummer Night's Dream"; dir. Nancy Meckler; RSC Stratford
I was a little apprehensive about this play. In recent years RSC productions have favoured monochrome set design and gritty realism even in adaptations of Shakespeare's comedies. And as much as I am a scholar, the little girl inside me does so love fairies, bright colours and twinkly lights.
One of the reasons I love Shakespeare is that his work is infinitely malleable; the words flowing around so many different, contrasting and clashing interpretations. Where the RSC is spare and bleak; the exuberant and colourful open air productions of the Stafford Gatehouse Theatre bring choreographed warm-up acts; intricate sets and mad wigs. I always enjoy myself, but for those first few minutes on Monday, as I took my seat looking at scenery which depicted the inside of a warehouse, peopled with seedy Lock-Stock types, I worried for my favourite play.
As the play opened my worries seemed confirmed. Theseus seemed to have stepped straight from a Guy Ritchie film, and when I heard him speak I had to check the programme to make sure he wasn't being played by Ray Winstone. I enjoyed the conflict between Theseus and Hippolyta: his efforts to win her over versus her extreme hostility were delightful. More than in any other interpretation I have yet seen, I believed that this woman was an Amazon queen, and the struggles and history between the two rulers was palpable.
The stand-out performance of the piece was Lucy Briggs-Owen as a spectacularly dotty Helena. Her interpretation of her character's fawning devotion despite frequent knockbacks was by turns hilarious and touching. Her interaction with Matti Houghton's Hermia drew focus to the simmering tension between the two, but also added an interesting element of hero worship.
Once the play moved to the "wood near Athens" I became intrigued by Meckler's use of the idea of the "dream", and I loved the duality she introduced between the court of Theseus and the court of Oberon. Having read the programme before the performance, I knew Meckler had read studies around the importance of dreams, and specifically the effect a dream can have in helping us to resolve a problem which eludes our waking mind. Meckler pulled the play in to help Hippolyta (as Titania in her dream) to resolve her issues with Theseus, and also work out a solution for the four lovers. The dreamscape became wonderfully random at times, with chairs raising into and lowering from the rafters, and Titania and Oberon's final passionate embrace, which transformed them back into Theseus and Hippolyta, was inspired. I was completely absorbed by Meckler's interpretation and vision: it felt fresh, and was executed with a gothic ethereal grace.
My only complaint against the play is that at times the interplay between the characters, and the gloriously delicious words, were steamrollered by a brand of slapstick that made the words of the Bard seem largely irrelevant.
Allow me to illustrate.
When the couples reach their crisis point and Hermia and Helena fight in the woods, much is made of a highly choreographed fight sequence, while the words of the "high vs low" argument (which are hilarious and some of my favourite in all of Shakespeare) are delivered in a shrieking breathless rush.
When the Rude Mechanicals perform their play much hilarity ensues. However this is mainly through silly accents and horseplay. The WORDS of Pyramus and Thisbe, the hilarious mistakes made by Bottom and the asides of the married couples are not, in my opinion given due weight. As the comedy came from the slapstick and not the inherent humour of the words it felt a little as though the play was being "dumbed down".
The dual role of Puck/Philostrate as master of ceremonies both in the dream and waking world was a little disappointing, again, through a lack of time being spent on allowing the words of Shakespeare to shine through.
That said I thoroughly enjoyed the play, the performances were outstanding, the vision had integrity and was carried through the play with strength. I loved the 1960s style and "summer of love" overtones, and I felt Meckler had put a great deal of intelligence and thought into preparing her production.