Continuing its season of Comedies, at the newly renamed Novello Theatre, the RSC has inevitably returned to A Midsummer Nights Dream. This is often a difficult play to pull off with modern audiences; however, with this new version, the RSC have rather triumphed.
Opening on the Athenian court of Theseus, the stage is completely bare but for two fighters in masks and black armour, duelling with swords. This initial sequence establishes the key theme for this production: confusion and misdirection. The combatants reveal themselves to be Theseus and his bride-to-be Hippolyta.
Furthermore, in Gregory Doran’s production the women, by word and look, are not the shy retiring women of many of Shakespeare’s plays; Hippolyta storms out of the room when Theseus refuses to intervene on Hermia’s behalf and Hermia herself is no shrinking violet but a woman prepared to fight for what she wants. Helena, who is in love with Demetrius is also no weak heroine: Caitlin Mottram plays her gloriously as the antithesis to the perky blonde prettiness of Sinead Keenan’s Hermia. This Helena is earnest, honest and very funny and it is easy to see why Oberon would feel moved to intervene on her behalf.
In recent productions it has been the sequences with Oberon, Titania, Puck and the rest of the woodland fairies, that have so often disappointed. However, Doran creates a world of dark, dangerous and malevolent spirits – eager to draw the humans in, to confuse and manipulate them. Oberon, played here by Joe Dixon, is all grace and suppressed anger; even Puck is unsure whether he will be displeased or amused. His Titania, played by Amanda Harris, is a sexy black-lace clad Elvira of a fairy queen, however her speech on the caprices of nature is truly moving.
And though Puck has the air of an eco-warrior about him, Jonathan Slinger brings out his treacherous, capricious sense of humour. His change of voice and pitch is not always consistent or effective but he does convey a real sense of mischief.
The ‘rustics’ can also often be problematic in Midsummer but not here. Played as workingmen from the North, with Bottom, played by Malcolm Storry, speaking in a thick Birmingham accent, they are simple men but occasionally they feel and see life more fully than their masters.
And, with their performance of Pyramus and Thisbe, they steal the show. However, it is Jamie Ballard’s Flute who, while funny, is also extremely moving – here he gives Thisbe’s final scene real emotion, a contrast to the hammy acting of Bottom.
This is not a perfect production; the singing often seems tagged-on, as if an afterthought, and the fairies are not always completely successful either, their childish games can sometimes feel like calculated stage devices.
However, the actors are all superb and there is a feeling of newness about the story and language that many others have tried to inject and failed. If you want to see Shakespeare’s comedy really fly then look no further.