“A proper woman, as one shall see in a summer’s day”
It’s all in the name – the Reversed Shakespeare Company have set themselves up with the express intention of exploring and expanding gender roles by flipping the script and giving us Shakespeare’s male characters played as women, by women and vice versa. So instead of your Polonias and Malvolias, their debut production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream begins with Egeus and Hermia as a battling mother and son in the court of their Duchess, Theseus.
It may take a moment of adjustment, not least when Helena bounds onto stage with a luscious red beard, but it sets the scene for an adventurous, interesting take on the play, that really does have a lot to say in its shifted sexual dynamics. How often do we get to see women being this forthright and dominant in their relationship, or men demurring modestly from a quickie in the woods? Or indeed for that matter (especially in light of The Painkiller and indeed the whole of farce as a genre), how rare it is to see women allowed to be this physically funny onstage.
This is largely down to a strong set of performances from the lovers – Charlotte Mulliner’s assured Lysander is superb, squaring up to Cassie Webb’s prissy Demetrius in pursuit first of Matthew Maltby’s affecting Hermia and then Matthew McFetridge’s outraged Helena. Their four-way quarrel was one of the more entertaining I’ve seen in a good while and constantly made one think about the ways in which theatre so often reinforces gender norms. My only small cavil was with the inclusion of “Your wrongs do set a scandal on my sex…”, its sentiments not sitting too well in McFetridge’s mouth however you slice it (though am I just supporting the patriarchy myself now? Dammit!).
Director Laura Jasper has intelligently modified the text throughout and interestingly, opts for a more low-key Titania and Oberon than one might expect. Rather than their conflict being a truly elemental one, it feels more of a lover’s tiff – Kate Cavendish’s Oberon is less jealous than jokey, high-fiving Puck with glee – and so the gender swap having perhaps less potent effect here, McFetridge doubling as Titania effectively though. Samuel Wilde’s lo-fi, detritus-strewn set design comes into its own in this fairyland, its playfulness adding to the style along with Odinn Hilmarsson’s brooding soundscape.
The six women of the company have lots of fun as the Rude Mechanicals, opting for a chaotic comic presence that pleased me well, even if as a gentleman I am awfully afeared of a lion. Ailis Duff’s Bottom demonstrates a real developing gift for comedy and Cavendish’s Snout gave a hilariously scene-stealing Wall. The broadness here works well precisely because its in direct contrast to the considered intelligence and emotional depth of the lovers’ portrayal – you believe that Maltby’s Hermia doesn’t want to give it up just yet, not this way, that McFetridge’s Helena would feel in his friend’s shadow (and perhaps even under his spell), that Mulliner’s Lysander and all her ardour could be thus swayed by love-in-idleness. It’s beguiling stuff indeed.
And as a final note, it’s lovely to see such a production in Shakespeare’s 400th anniversary year, one that makes you consider such a familiar play in a new light. This is my third Dream of the year already (the RSC and Filter being the other two) and it won’t be the last (Emma Rice’s debut at the Globe yet to come) but I’ll bet I remember this one well.