“It seems to be that yet we sleep, we dream”
The Michael Grandage Company move onto their fourth show, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the first of two Shakespeares that will finish the season. And given the emphasis of the star wattage that formed the backbone of its publicity, it’s an interesting choice of play due to its ensemble nature and lack of any real star parts. So we get Sheridan Smith in the dual role of Hippolyta and Titania and David Walliams as Nick Bottom the weaver, alongside a company of others many of whom have appeared in previous MGC shows.
Grandage’s main conceit is to locate the play in 1960s England, making the magical forest into a festival-like world of hippies and free love, allowing an unambiguous focus on sex as the driving force of the play. It’s more like an Athena model version of sex than the untrammeled passion of the real thing though – the four lovers parade about the forest in various states of underwear-clad undress, Titania’s seductive ways lure Bottom into an off-stage bower, the hints of amour between the Rude Mechanicals left tantalisingly unexplored.
That said, it is a most elegant production in Christopher Oram’s classily designed set, dominated by a giant moon, and Paule Constable’s evocative lighting, which nips along at a speedy two hours twenty minutes. The interpretation doesn’t allow for an effective opening – Hippolyta ends up rather neutered in this modern context and Smith flounders a little where a firm sense of her relationship with Pádraic Delaney‘s Theseus ought to emerge. But once the business of setting up the various intertwining plots has been done, Grandage allows the measured magical fun to begin.
The romantically entangled quartet – Lysander who loves Hermia who is also loved by Demetrius who in turns is loved by Helena – are genuinely excellent. Susannah Fielding’s scrappy Hermia fizzes with energy and Katherine Kingsley’s Helena – what legs! – is often hilarious as the anguished lover, seemingly also on the run and doubting what is happening. And there’s no pretending otherwise, Stefano Braschi’s Demetrius and Sam Swainsbury’s Lysander are smoking hot, spending most of the play shirtless, trousers unbuckled or off and proving most pleasing indeed for those of us so shallow-minded. They also act well though, revelling in the silliness of their enchanted doings.
In the forest, Sheridan Smith makes a vibrant tribal-inspired Titania, warring against Pádraic Delaney‘s Oberon and his knavish sprite Puck, Gavin Fowler full of playful energy. And ironically given the faces on the poster, it is Delaney who delivers the verse-speaking highlights of the night, his unaffected readings capturing so much of what makes Shakespeare so enduringly listenable. As for Walliams, he plays Bottom pretty much as a character from Little Britain though only really overindulges in the death scenes of their show-ending finale. It’s not as painful as I might have expected and it certainly went down a storm with many around me. For me though, more interesting were the hints of a relationship between him and Richard Dempsey’s fabulous Peter Quince, both fighting over the taut body and attentions of Alex Large’s Francis Flute.
So all in all a pretty successful evening at the theatre, albeit one that never feels truly inspired. It’s one of my favourite of Shakespeare’s plays – the first I ever read – and I’ve been privileged to see some cracking productions with great moments within. Rachael Stirling’s incomparable Helena for the Rose, the inspired Open Air version last year with its violence right up there with the sex, the Gilbert and Sullivan influences at Stafford Castle this summer, a raucously modern interpretation replete with wedding dance just last month. This production may not live as long in the memory as these but it is solidly entertaining and great value if you can get your hands on a £12 ticket.