views from the gods

saints and sinners of the stage and screen

A Midsummer Night's Dream
The Blue Elephant Theatre
29th November 2012

★★★★☆

It's no secret Shakespeare's comedies are frequently considerably less funny than his tragedies. I mean, what's more humorous, a woman dressed as a man being mistaken for a pair of twins, one of whom is a Duke married to his brother's lover who is then chased offstage by a bear, or someone spitefully baking rapists in a pie and feeding it to their mother? I know which side I'm on. It's with this in mind that I found myself happily surprised at Lazarus Theatre's Midsummer Night's Dream.

Michael Bagwell and Julie Gilby as Oberon and Hermia

Photography © Adam Trigg

Taking on an unenviable task, they managed to hack down the normal running time of Bill's classic from about 150 minutes to a lean 75 and, to be brutally honest about the original, not a huge amount was lost. It's a fairly complex plot, revolving around three groups - the Athenians (or rather 'the boring lot', as it has the usual love mix-up between Hermia, Helena, Lysander and Demetrius), the fairies (consisting of Oberon, Titania and Puck) and the players (Quince and Bottom). But a lot of the frankly dull to-ing and fro-ing that Shakespeare bunged in has wisely been cut by director Ricky Dukes, leaving a tight, well-considered piece that achieves the magic of the original in a fraction of its time.

I'm not rehashing the whole storyline, suffice to say the annoyed fairy king Oberon (Michael Bagwell channelling a sinister Christopher Eccleston) gets his servant Puck (Lucy Fyffe) to sprinkle the juice of a flower into the eyes of his estranged queen Titania (Alice Brown) who then falls in love with Bottom (James Taylor Thomas) whose head Puck has changed into that of a donkey. It also happens with the aforementioned Athenians and they each fall in love with who they're meant to.

There's a slow-burn approach to the whole thing, with the comedy taking some time to get off the ground.  Scene-setting with Theseus and Hippolyta (Bagwell and Brown again) is necessary, but slows proceedings considerably.  Marriages are announced - and renounced - around a long dinner table, evoking the Final Supper, another precursor to  some magical realism. But when the show moves into comedy territory, it does so very well.

James Taylor Thomas as Bottom

Photography © Adam Trigg

The star is undoubtedly Thomas as Bottom - probably one of the best I've seen. His camp, persnickety attitude is perfect and each glance or facial contortion is delivered with the same conviction, elegance and wit as every line. Bottom was never one of Shakey's deepest characters, but here he's both utterly intolerable and strangely magnetic. A pedant and grandstander that you'd hate to work with, but ultimately good-hearted. He's Mr Bean if Mr Bean wasn't vindictive. He brings lightness to the brooding atmosphere of the fairies.

That's not to say he's the only strong player. The cast in general are incredibly solid, even though there were a couple of dodgy blips in iambic pentameter here and there. But a lot bring things to their roles that, in script alone, really don't deserve to be there. The four lovers, fairly two-dimensional, are brought to life. Hermia (Julie Gilby), Helena (Ewa Jowroski) Demetrius (Stuart Mortimer) and Lysander (Joseph Tweedale) are all compelling, and their climax - a superb nod to Shakespeare's links to theatre-in-the-round - is very satisfying indeed. As mentioned, Bagwell's Oberon sets the tone of the whole piece and the flickering lights of the acting troupe wouldn't seem as bright without the oppressive, almost deadly background he provides.

Photography © Adam Trigg

From Aaron Clingham's music, to Alex Musgrave's lighting, all of the pieces of the jigsaw fit together to provide an eerie atmosphere, and an especially lovely snowfall effect made it feel all the more enchanting. The Blue Elephant has a knack for picking just the right season-specific pieces (see dance show Signs, Games and Messages for another example) and this is no different.

If there's one criticism, other than the slow build-up, it must be that one of Shakespeare's most enigmatic creations (and one of my personal favourites), Puck, is largely absent from proceedings. He gets namechecked, but is used as a plot device and represented as another of Titania's fairies rather than treated as an interesting character in his own right. His final audience-addressing speech is still there, but it loses a little oomph by not having the shrewd and knavish sprite in the foreground of the piece throughout. Without him, the show loses a little magic. On the other hand, his omission is entirely understandable and it feels like I'm complaining that Tom Bombadil was cut from Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy - he's largely surplus to requirements.

It might suffer from a slow start, but when Dukes' Dream does ramp up into top gear, there's no stopping it. It's great to see a company that doesn't bow to the industry's desire to innovate for innovation's sake and instead presents A Midsummer Night's Dream for what it is - simply a fun, mysterious and bewitching tale. And it's even better to see one of Shakespeare's comedies become genuinely laugh-out-loud hilarious again.

A Midsummer Night's Dream ran from 27th November to 15th December 2012 at the Blue Elephant Theatre.

Nearest tube station: Oval (Northern)



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