“Out of this wood do not desire to go”
As the first of Shakespeare’s works that I ever read and studied, I will always have a great affection for A Midsummer Night’s Dream and to this day, it has endured as probably my favourite of his plays. Something about its otherworldly (dream-like…) free-spiritedness really appeals to me, meaning there’s little of the suspension of disbelief often necessary to make the contrivances of his other comedies work, and it is a play robust enough to take many an interpretation, whether raucuous reinventions by Filter or Propeller, last year’s clever open air take by Iris Theatre or more classically inspired ones like the Rose Kingston’s Judi Dench-starring version from 2010. It is now the turn of Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre to revisit the show (though this was my first experience of it here) with a startlingly modern interpretation as it plays in rep with Ragtime, with which it shares much of its cast, over the summer.
First things first, this was a preview, the second I believe and due to the rain on Saturday, actually the first full run-through. Things begin with some pre-show business bustling about the trailer park set, reminiscent of the Dale Farm site with travellers squaring up to each other and to the encroaching building contractors, it sets the scene well but goes on a wee bit too long for too little effect in all honesty. But once the play proper starts with its arresting, punchy modernity, Matthew Dunster’s exceptionally well-balanced production clicks smoothly into gear, folding in classical references to this fresh new take and delving into some extremely dark places alongside the oft-times hilarious humour.
Athens becomes a building site, soon to become Athensfield shopping centre, upon which a community of travellers have set up camp and in which the social rules of this world align spectacularly well with Shakespeare’s initial set-up. David Birrell’s genuinely fearsome tribal leader Theseus has literally seized Katie Brayben’s feisty but battered Hippolyta; Egeus’ vicious paternal anger spikes from Hermia’s spirited defiance of his arranged marriage for her and the conventions of her community; Lysander and Demetrius’ rivalry, watched by Rebecca Oldfield’s deliciously tottering Helena pining after the disinterested latter, is no lily-livered verbal sparring but full-on fisticuffs, expertly directed by Kate Waters, which leaves the pair of them bloodied. One is left with no doubt as to why the would-be lovers are so keenly intent on fleeing this environment.
The introduction of a set of bumbling Rude Mechanicals, here the idle workmen on the building site, led by Harry Hepple’s gap-toothed Quince and dominated by George Bukhari’s garrulous Bottom, soon reminds us that we’re in a comedy, but it is the entry into fairyland that really does capture the essential transformative magic of theatre. The arrival of the first two fairies is very cleverly essayed, but chief among this is Tamsin Carroll’s superlative queen of the fairies Titania. Writhing in passionate anger and extremely well-spoken even as she is sinuously moved around by her most masculine of fairies, she is never less than compulsively watchable and a highlight of the show. Jon Bausor’s design cleverly allows for this shift with its looming crane finally coming into use, a bottomless pool ingeniously used throughout and the emergence of an utterly beautiful flower-strewn bower which creates one of the most enduring images of the show as Titania sleeps, a gorgeous call-back to more traditional productions.
And so from here, the three storylines entwine and play out beautifully and with a fantastic sense of humour. Kingsley Ben Adir and Tom Padley’s lovesick youths, are a sight to behold as they mimic each other’s behaviours whilst chasing Oldfield’s Helena, who really is a comic revelation here, and retching amusingly as they even mention Hayley Gallivan’s firecracker of a Hermia. The transformed Bukhari and Carroll gambol with élan under Christopher Colquhoun’s baleful gaze as an imposing Oberon and Oliver Johnstone, a notable debutant, makes an appealing Puck, genuinely intrigued by the antics of the invading mortals.
As the dream passes and the cold light of day descends, Dunster then expertly navigates the final section of the play with devastating effect on the twin tracks of comedy and tragedy. The nods to My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding are made explicit in a wonderfully trashy wedding reception for three and the only thing lamentable about the tale of Pyramus and Thisbe was that it had to end, so full of ingenious wit that I was near helpless with laughter. But at the same time we are witness to the very real tragedy of Hippolyta’s desperation at her entrapment in a forced marriage and inability or unwillingness to put a brave face on it and Katie Brayben really rises to the challenge here (quite literally in the case of her most unwieldly of wedding dresses) – if you can drag your eyes away from the fabulous medley of dance routines that form the bergamask, just watch the conflicting emotions on her face, sensational stuff.
This darkness is then further alluded to in the final striking appearance of the fairies as the play takes its bow and the overall impact was one of considerable substance, which is no mean feat given the nature of the play. I can’t pretend to know anywhere near enough to say whether this is an effective social commentary on relationships within the travelling community but what it has to say about the persuasive power of love and the dangers inherent in defying societal convention in pursuing it, has resonance far beyond the caravans of Regent’s Park.