A Midsummer Night’s Dream @ Open Air Theatre, London

cast list
Sam Alexander
Tobias Beer
Norman Bowman
Alan Bradshaw
Olivia Darnley
Chris Edgerley
Christian Edwards
Chris Emmett
Richard Glaves
Rachel Jerram
Hattie Ladbury
Anna Lowe
Martin McCarthy
David McGranaghan
Mark Meadows
Kate NelsonThomas Padden
David Peart
Nicolas Pinto-Sander
Joseph Pitcher
Gemma Sutton
Ian Talbot
Steve Watts
Sarah Woodward

directed by
Christopher Luscombe
There may be something about A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Open Air Theatre in Regent’s Park that today screams “clich!” to the theatre snob.

Not for me! I have never been to the Open Air Theatre before, and my only experience of this style of presentation was some water-weak version of The Taming of the Shrew in Lewes, on the south coast, about fifteen years ago, so I was actually quite excited about the idea of seeing whether form would prevail over content.

It probably helped that it was a beautiful night only a sadist, or possibly a Puritan, could believe that the cold or the rain makes watching theatre outdoors better, let alone tolerable. Of course, the man-made “woodland” setting makes the play an obvious choice in the words of outgoing Artistic Director of the theatre Ian Talbot, it is a case of “the greatest play ever written” being performed “in the best theatre in the world for it”. So it’s “obvious” who cares, when here is a production whose joy could barely be contained within four walls?

I won’t patronise by summarising the plot when Wikipedia does it so well, I’ll simply point out some of the more interesting motifs of this production. Director Christopher Luscombe chooses to contrast the repression of Athens and the licentiousness of the woods by using Victorian costumes for the former and some sort of Sino-Greek hybrid for the latter. The parts of the Athenian royal household are doubled with that of their woodland equivalents, blurring the distinction between what is real and what is dream. There is the suggestion of a homosexual relationship between Oberon and Puck, and there’s a lot of rather pointless staring up at the moon whenever it is mentioned.

Ensembles are sometimes a necessary evil when body-packed Shakespeare meets the sharp economic realities of modern theatre production. No doubt there is an element of pragmatism at work here too, but the choice certainly does not seem forced or the production cheapened by it. On the contrary, it brings us the magic of the quick costume change and the important expression of a self-contained world of which the audience are observers.

There are many highlights, but the brilliant comic direction and performances are what make this production unmissable. Ian Talbot, clearly fired with the energy of a man in the throes of demobbing, makes a rather old but brilliant Bottom, bringing the unironic joy of sitcom to the stage indeed the whole Pyramus and Thisby sub-plot is worth the admission price alone. Their staging of the play in Act Five is, frankly, a comic masterpiece, and Talbot’s improvised incorporation of a circling jumbo jet above the park, timing its bright, noisy passage perfectly in response to the line “my soul is in the sky” had not only me, but members of the cast crying with helpless laughter.

I thought I was going to find Olivia Darnley’s impression of Michelle Dotrice’s Betty from Some Mothers Do Ave Em as Hermea annoying until it became clear that the whole Athenian plot was being wrung, Acorn Antiques-style, for the comic potential of its melodrama. When Lysander (Sam Alexander) makes his suggestion that he and Hermia elope, it is amusingly accompanied by “stock” dramatic violins; when the musicians fail to do the same for Helena (Hattie Ladbury) later in the scene, she chivvies them along with a look. Whether the lame use of inch-high grass to suggest the forest is just for a cheap laugh, I’m not sure, but the light-heartedness certainly keeps the pace up and the fun foremost.

Theatre needs to work hard at making itself magical. It is a pleasure to see Shakespeare’s most magical play given the energy it needs to soar, like Bottom’s soul, into the heavens.

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