“I’m going to do an abstract version”
With the best will in the world, it is hard not to carry opinions with you and this is particularly true in the theatre. In the name of attempting to be open-minded, I have continued to plug away at Ibsen in the hope that one day his work might click with me, but truth be told my heart sinks when productions of his work are mentioned. And despite their sterling reputation and rave reviews, Filter’s work has previously left me a little cold, moving the head rather than the heart, so as I filled in at the last minute for a reviewer who dropped out, there was a little reluctance as I waited for the curtain to rise on their production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Lyric Hammersmith.
Filter are a company whose reinterpretations of classic texts, as well as the creation of new work, burst with creativity and great imagination as they explore the theatrical potential offered by a radical approach to sound. But for me, that hasn’t always been matched with a similiar attention to story-telling – so Silence, Water and Twelfth Night were not my favourite moments in a theatre. Suffice to say though that in this case, whilst purists may baulk at this treatment of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Filter succeeded in smashing my preconceptions and entertaining me most thoroughly indeed.
There’s so much inventiveness at work here, a determination to ensure that laughs come from the most unexpected of angles, that the production often feels less like a Shakespeare adaptation than an anarchic comedy session. This is reinforced by Ed Gaughan’s opening stand-up routine/introduction/compering of the night as Peter Quince, deliciously irreverent to cast and latecomers alike and sets the scene for the raucous fun ahead.
And what fun there is. Most of the joy will come from the sheer randomness of what happens and how it happens and so little will be revealed here. I will share some of things which made me laugh the most though: the way in which Bottom is cast, the abuse that Alan Pagan’s Snug gets, the mouthiness of the First Fairy, Oberon’s catching a flower, the way in which the fairies’ invisibility is played on throughout, John Lightbody’s every movement as a sinuous Lysander, the list is huge! Jonathan Broadbent’s Oberon is simply inspired in its petulant ridiculousness and Ferdy Robert’s burly roadie of a Puck is highly charismatic. And it may seem at times that the story is incidental to the onstage antics, but the keynotes that emerge are indeed some of those which underpin Shakespeare’s writing: the power of transformation and the manipulation of passion and its loving and lustful effects on both those who are controlled and those who would control.
But all for the madness, there are also moments of beautiful clarity: the first entry into fairyland is gorgeously essayed with the most unlikely of substances, and key sections of verse are given sensitive readings that strike home all the more effectively for their quietness. And the archetypal ingenuity we’ve come to expect with the sound effects is brilliantly done but never allowed to overshadow the actual business of story-telling which has sometimes crept in before. Occasionally, moments go on a tad too long – I personally didn’t care too much for the rock songs – and the way Pyramus and Thisbe is staged pulls us out of the production a little too much rather than connecting with the story of the play. But these are minor quibbles, and if you start to pull at that thread too much, you’d be in danger of missing the whole point.
It often seems to be considered a crime to want to enjoy oneself at the theatre, the recent flurry of successful comedies has to be characterised as a response to these straitened times, but I suspect that this is just an attempt to fill column inches. Theatre can delve into darkness and serious issues with the most extraordinary effectiveness, but it is also a flexible medium that can tickle the ribs as well as the grey matter and whether the economy is booming or going bust, the desire to sometimes just have a great laugh on a night out remains constant. This Dream may be uncomplicated, and sometimes irreverent, but never less than belly-achingly delightful. And in completely confounding my expectations, it pleasingly challenged my preconceptions and reminded me that it is totally worth trying things out even if you’re not sure you’ll like them.