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A Midsummer Night's Dream

For the archive, we have filed reviews of several past productions of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream on this page. Scroll down for the one you want, or just browse.

RSC 1999 - Open Air 2000 - Open Air 2001 - RSC 2002 - Open Air 2003 - Propeller 2003 - Open Air 2004 - RSC 2006 - Roundhouse 2007 -  RSC 2009 - Filter 2012 - Noel Coward Theatre 2013 - RSC 2016 - Young Vic 2017

Barbican Theatre, Autumn1999

Of the dozens of productions of A Midsummer Night's Dream I've seen, I can't remember one complete failure. The play, like only a couple others of Shakespeare's, is indestructible. On the other hand, it is surprisingly difficult to do very well, and in my experience the Royal Shakespeare Company (barring always the now-mythic 1970 Peter Brook version) has tended to be defeated by it.

There is something about this play that brings out the ponderousness to which the RSC is prone; and this latest version, weighing in at a sometimes heavy three hours, finds the right tone only intermittently.

The play starts gloomily, with the Athenian court looking like the Soviet Politburo on a particularly chilly day, everyone muffled in overcoats and applauding on cue to the ruler's pronouncements.

This could work if the forest were then seen as a summery curative. And that seems at first to be the intention, as flowers spring out of the stage like the candles in "The Phantom of the Opera," and two of the courtiers strip down to become Puck and a fairy.

But, under Michael Boyd's direction, the forest proves almost as joyless and lifeless as the court. Doubling as both royal couples, Nicholas Jones and Josette Simon play Oberon and Titania as only slightly more sinuous and sensual (i.e., they writhe around a lot) versions of Theseus and Hippolyta, while Aiden McArdle's Puck is no mischievous sprite, but a glum and grimy gardener complete with wheelbarrow.

The four young lovers have been directed to recite their lines rather than speak them, almost never giving the sense of immediately-felt experience; only Hermione Gulliford as Helena achieves any hint of characterisation.

For me a touchstone scene is the one in which poor Helena thinks everyone is ganging up on her. It can be played successfully for knockabout farce, sweet sentimentality or dark irony. Michael Boyd seems to have attempted all three at once, with no real commitment to any. So, one or two bits of physical humour aside (Lysander gets rid of Hermia in a particularly inventive way), the scene hits few of its intended notes and sustains none.

As I said, though, the play is indestructible. "Pyramus and Thisbe" works, as it always does (though I've seen it much funnier, and Daniel Ryan is not a particularly memorable Bottom). And this production does have its moments.

Letting the gardener Puck plant the whole flower, dirt and all, on his victims is a thin joke, but it works; and the scene in which he puts the four lovers to sleep is fun. And at the very end, when the festive dance and fairy blessing multiplies Moonshine's lantern until the stage and auditorium are aglow with shimmering globes, the magic of Shakespeare's vision comes alive.

Any production of Dream is better than none at all. If this is your first, you will enjoy it. But, oh, it could be so much better.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Open Air Theatre Summer 2000

Based on past experiences at this lovely outdoor theatre, I was half-prepared to write a vaguely patronising review about "good enough for a nice night out in the park." But in fact this is one of the very best productions of the Dream I've ever seen.

The Open Air Theatre is one of the oldest Shakespeare-in-the-Park venues, and one of the best, and it does always offer a nice night out. A Midsummer Night's Dream is a perennial here, since its tale of fairy magic on a summer's night lends itself so perfectly to the setting, with evening imperceptibly moving into night time along with the events of the play.

In such a setting they could be forgiven for getting by with just-good-enough, as they have in some past years. But Alan Strachan's new production captures all the play's magic and comedy, while making it come alive in fresh and exciting ways.

Having just spent two interminable afternoons at that other popularizing-Shakespeare venue, the Globe, it was such a delight to encounter a director and cast who know how to make the play accessible and entertaining.

First of all, Strachan has guided his actors to that rarest of Shakespearean talents, the ability to speak each line as if for the first time, rather than reciting them. The language comes thrillingly alive and is never for a minute obscure (and, paradoxically, the beauty of the poetry is more evident), and the characters become living, breathing people.

To add to this, each of the actors has found a real character, individualized and delightfully quirky. Harry Burton doubles as a blokish Theseus, completely out of his depth with Nicola Redmond's independent Hippolyta, and as a bemusedly observing Oberon to her randy and sensual Titania.

The four young lovers are too often indistinguishable in other productions. But Sally Hawkins gives us a Hermia who is clearly a shrew in training, who will undoubtedly dominate Tam Williams' self-dramatizing poet of a Lysander. There's more hope for the Demetrius-Helena marriage: though Chris Larkin gives us an upper-class twit, Sarah Tansey's Helena has enough dignity for the two of them.

Popular TV star Paul Bradley (of EastEnders fame) is a cheery, bossy Bottom, and his animatronic ass's head is the best I've seen. Only Paul Kemp's inexplicably moody Puck offers a hint of darkness.

Go see this. You'll laugh, you'll sigh, you'll ooohh and aaahh, you'll understand every word and be engrossed every minute. And the park setting will only make it more magical.

(A suggestion: bring a picnic - it will add to the magic. And bring a sweater. And if you've never been there, bring a map or take a cab - it can be hard to find the theatre in the middle of the park.)

Gerald Berkowitz

Open Air Theatre, Regent's Park Summer 2001

This revival of Alan Strachan's magical production from last summer retains most of its charm and delight, making for an ideal Shakespeare-in-the-park experience.

If you've never done Shakespeare-in-the-park, in London or some other city, this is the perfect play and the perfect production to begin with. Shakespeare's romantic comedy (this is the one in which four lovers and some amateur actors encounter fairies and magical love potions in the woods, leading to confusion, transformations and, inevitably, a happy ending) might well have been written for such a setting. As the play takes its characters into the forest at night, and the real-world late twilight gradually deepens into darkness around us, play and theatre seem to blend together.

In such a setting even a mediocre production of the Dream comes alive, but Strachan's is one of the best I've ever seen. His special talent is in guiding his actors to speak the familiar lines as if for the first time, and to find individuality and reality in their fairy tale characters. So, for example, the four young lovers are nicely individualized, Benedict Cumberbatch's chocolate soldier Demetrius balanced by Gideon Turner's boyish Lysander. Rebecca Callard's Hermia is, for once, as short as the play says she is, but has a shrewish side that leaves us wondering just how happy her husband will be, while Candida Benson is one of the rare Helenas to understand that hers is a comic role, the Eve Arden-Martha Raye figure of the plain girl desperate to catch her man.

In the standard doubling of roles, Martin Turner is a tentative Theseus but an assertive and confident Oberon, while Rebecca Johnson is a glum Hippolyta and passionate Titania, in each case adding a nice subtextual suggestion that their fairy personalities represent what the human characters wish they could be. Gary Wilmot, best known as a musical theatre performer, brings immense charm to Bottom, he of the magically-imposed ass's head, while Paul Kemp's Puck (a holdover from last year) is deliciously cynical.

As Shakespeare-lovers know, the last act of the Dream contains what is probably the funniest twenty minutes in all of world drama, as the amateur actors get to put on their play, badly. It is one more credit to this production that, no matter how many times you may have seen the play before, there are new surprises and new sources of laugh-out-loud funniness in that scene.

It's an outdoor theatre, and performances go on in anything short of torrential rain. So pack a sweater and umbrella, just in case. And don't forget the traditional mulled wine during the interval. This is really as good as Shakespeare-in-the-park ever gets.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Barbican Theatre Spring 2002

The Dream is an absolutely indestructible play. I have seen inept and even deliberately wrongheaded productions do their best to ruin it, and yet enough of its comedy and romantic magic always come through to make any production work, and the only disappointment can affect the experienced theatregoer who knows how very much better it could be.

Richard Jones' current production for the RSC is neither inept nor terribly wrongheaded, but that sense that he has chosen to give up so much of the play's potential may explain the angry reception it got from the critics in Stratford. I can report that the opening-night London audience, which included many school-age kids obviously seeing the play for the first time, loved it. And so the fact that I would have directed every scene and character differently, and have seen every scene and character played better, may ultimately be irrelevant. The play, as I say, is indestructible, and a partially successful Dream is still a delight.

Jones' vision clearly is anti-romantic and anti-comical. He and designer Giles Cadle set the play in a series of black boxes punctuated by painted-on white searchlights, giving it the air of a film noir and the heaviness of a weary morning-after. The fairies are dressed and played as modern Goth clubbers after a hard night of partying, with Tim McMullan's hungover Theseus and Yolanda Vazquez's sexually voracious Titania backed by a drugged-out, twitching and bedraggled band. Only Dominic Cooper's Puck seems to have much energy, but his demonic edge keeps things dark as he carries Bottom's abandoned human head around like a football. There's also a triffid-like walking tree, along with Oberon and Puck's inclination to pluck out sleepers' eyes before anointing them, to add to the nightmare quality.

In this context the four young lovers played by Gabrielle Jourdan, Michael Colgan, Nikki Amuka-Bird and Paul Chequer are attractive but never particularly funny, and they, like the mechanicals dressed and behaving in the anonymous grey of worn-down East German workers, don't stand much of a chance. So the middle sections of the play, stripped of much of their comedy or of a sense of benign magic, are the weakest. Even Darrell D'Silva's Bottom, a quirky aesthete in his opening scene, becomes colourlessly phlegmatic.

Things pick up in the last act, with Peter Lindford's manly Theseus willing the play into a brighter mood. The amateur actors' mangling of Pyramus and Thisbe triumphs, as it always does, over any attempts to play down its comic quality. Surprisingly, their earnest playing of the comic love story also offers the evening's few touches of real romantic sweetness.

If you've seen The Dream before, I can virtually guarantee that you've seen a better production. On the other hand, enough of the play's irrepressible charm comes through to make this an adequate if not spectacular introduction for the first-timer.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Open Air Theatre Summer 2003

The Dream is just about the most perfect play ever written. Its charm, its humour and its romantic magic will survive even the worst production, and it is always guaranteed to be a delight. And of course it is the perfect play for outdoor production, with its tale of magic in the forest night.

Which is not in any way to suggest that the current Regent's Park production is bad. I've seen others that were funnier or more magical, but this one captures as much of the play's charms as you could ask for.

Director Michael Pennington, himself an experienced Shakespearean actor, has sought out some new nuances to the characters and the magical world they visit. The fairies aren't Tinker Bells, but nature spirits who appear and disappear into the foliage. The Athenian workingmen's amateur acting society are modern craftsmen armed with cellphones, and the king and queen of fairyland (Dale Rapley and Issy van Randwyck) are a squabbling downmarket couple out of Eastenders.

The four young lovers whose crossed romances are complicated further by fairy magic are nicely individualised, Nick Fletcher's scruffy student Lysander a clear alternative to Nicholas Burns' twit of a Demetrius, while Claire Redcliffe shows us a Hermia who has always been the cutest girl in the school and takes it as her due that all the boys are in love with her, while Victoria Woodward's Helena is the one who would always have been good at sports.

Peter Forbes makes Bottom one of nature's gentlemen, at home in any situation, including being transformed into an ass, while John Hodgkinson finds new humour in a Theseus so glum that a line like 'Go and stir the Athenian youths to merriment' is spoken with the absolute conviction that such an accomplishment is impossible.

Only Joseph Alessi's Puck disappoints, more through excess of imagination than absence, as he varies from moment to moment between being a hard man, a closet queen and one of the Three Stooges in search of his brothers.

Dress warmly and bring an umbrella (just in case) and, if you'd like, a picnic. There are few more charming ways to spend a London summer evening.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Comedy Theatre Autumn 2003

This sparkling production by Edward Hall's all-male Propeller Theatre Company does just about everything right, and some of it very, very right. It may not be the most romantic or poetic Dreams you'll ever see, but it is one of the funniest, brightest and happiest.

Using the same actors as in last year's Rose Rage, his fast-moving condensation of the Henry VI plays, Hall again proves himself one of the most inventive young directors around. He sets the play in a kind of backstage circus environment, with the cast all in white union suits and whiteface, and a ring of ladders and chairs providing an upper level. Tarpaulins lying about will prove to be covering various props and even actors, and a box in the centre will not only hold the minimal costumes but also magically make characters appear and disappear.

With little but the playwright's words and their performances, the actors instantly and fully conjure up characters and settings. Simon Scardifield's childlike Puck is now wide-eyed in delight at the confusion his errors cause, now petulantly pouting about all the chores Oberon keeps sending him to do - and that same put-upon quality serves him nicely when he later doubles as Starveling trying to play Moonshine in the face of constant heckling.

Tony Bell is an amiable and remarkably adaptive Bottom, as happy being a noticeably well-endowed ass as he was being a jovial amateur actor. Guy Williams brings an attractive blend of hard-man macho and urbane suavity to Oberon - think Pete Postlethwaite with Alan Rickman's voice - a nice balance to Matt Flynn's more buttoned-up Theseus.

Only rarely is the cross-gender casting played for a laugh, as when Richard Clothier's amazonian Titania attempts not-very-successfully to look coyly alluring upon seeing Bottom. Instead, Jonathan McGuinness's slightly air-headed Hermia and especially Robert Hands' Helena are more fully developed characterisations than I've seen many actresses manage.

The scene in which poor Helena, who up to then no one has loved, suddenly finds what seems like a cruel practical joke of lovers right and left is one of my touchstones for productions of this play, and too few directors and casts get it right. But the two male actresses, along with Dugald Bruce-Lockhart's Lysander and Vincent Leigh's Demetrius, capture exactly the right blend of sweet pathos and slapstick hilarity.

The final act, with the amateur actors' production of Pyramus and Thisbe, may be the funniest  20 minutes in all of world theatre, and director Hall has the confidence not to overgild the lily, letting the foolproof scene play itself.

Indeed, that innate sense of taste and discretion, knowing just when an extra bit of business will add to the comedy - the play is full of little throw-away gestures and reactions that all score - and when to leave the play alone and let it work its own well-proven magic, is becoming one of Hall's signature qualities.

Anyway, this Dream is crisp, clear, fast-moving, occasionally touching, and always a lot of fun. There is very, very little more that you could possibly ask for.

Gerald Berkowitz

Open Air Theatre Summer 2004

This Shakespeare-in-the-park perennial is a play almost designed for outdoor performance, with its tale of magic and star-crossed lovers in a forest night. As the dusk fades into darkness, and lights appear among the trees that surround the stage, you can't help being drawn into the play's fairyland.

It is to Artistic Director Ian Talbot's credit that he doesn't just repeat the same production year after year, as satisfying as that would have been. With each year's new cast comes a new director (Talbot himself in 2004), new set design and new discoveries of comedy or romantic mood that keep the play fresh even for those audience members who return year after year.

That said, there are a few carry-over traditions to these productions that are beginning to wear a bit thin. Turning the fairies into ragged punks has become something of a cliche (The RSC did it 20 years ago), and it has been years since they've had a really entertaining and magical Puck,  Mark Hilton's skinhead yob bringing little to this production.

On the other hand, they keep finding new things to do with the four young lovers. This year, Sophie Bould's always-been-the-prettiest-girl-in-school Hermia is a perfect match for Jordan Frieda's upper-class twit of a Lysander, while Ben Hicks' chocolate soldier Demetrius seems particularly lucky to end up with Annette McLaughlin's gawky-but-clearly-a-catch Helena.

Keith Dunphy's manly but compassionate Oberon towers over things majestically, while Lauren Wood brings a nice gamin quality to Titania. Russ Abbott is a more mature and subdued Bottom than some, but brings his veteran's comic timing to every line.

I miss the elaborate ass's heads of other years, this season's being little more than a fur cap with ears, though it gives Abbott the opportunity to do a lot of comic mugging as the transformed Bottom.

And of course the performance of Pyramus and Thisbe, arguably the funniest twenty minutes in all of world drama, rounds out the evening hilariously, director Talbot still able to find new ways for the Athenian Working Men's Amateur Dramatic Society to mess up.

There's a bar and a café, or you can bring your own picnic and make an afternoon and evening of it. The theatre is in the middle of Regent's Park and can be a bit hard for first-timers to find, so ring ahead for directions. And since even the balmiest London evening can get a bit chilly, be sure to bring a jacket or sweater.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Novello Theatre February 2006

The Dream is as close to a perfect play as you can get - always magical, always hilarious, no matter the production. So it is a special bonus when the production is as magical and hilarious as this RSC version, which is as close to perfect as it can get.

Director Gregory Doran has borrowed from the best productions of recent years and added enough new touches to delight the most jaded of Dream veterans. His production is beautiful, and funny, and romantic, and happy - and just plain fun from start to finish.

(Quick reminder: unhappy lovers, fairies, magic potions, people in love with the wrong people, Bottom with an ass's head, Puck - that one.)

Among the borrowed elements: what has become a bit of a cliche in the past decade or so, portraying the fairies as ragged urchins, with Puck a mildly rebellious punk, along with a floating bed for Titania and playing the Athenian Working Men's Amateur Dramatic Society (if no one else) in modern dress as modern types.

But even there Doran works some new twists. The fairies carry Barbie doll versions of themselves, which they can invoke when stage magic is called for, and Oberon is wheeled about on a sort of skateboard that not only makes him tower over the others but gives his movements a magical quality.

Jonathan Slinger gives Puck a very modern air of the guy who's been there and done that, but is still capable of enjoying things when they take an unexpected twist. Joe Dixon's Oberon is macho and sexy, Amanda Harris's Titania as sensuous and imperious as Cleopatra. (In a nice comic touch, as besotted as she is with the transformed Bottom, she shows us every woman's need to overlook an awful lot about him in order to stay in love.)

Malcolm Storry's Bottom is the only luvvie in the village, an amiable poseur whose pretensions to being arty completely awe his fellows but don't hide the fact that he actually does have some talent.

The four young lovers are attractive and nicely individualised, Oscar Pearce's buttoned-down Demetrius and Trystan Gravelle's scruffy Lysander bouncing off each other (figuratively and literally) to comic effect. Sinead Keenan's Hermia is a spoiled teenager who is clearly going to grow up to become Sibyl Fawlty, while Caitlin Mottram's Helena has the attractively gawky future-headmistress charm of a young Penelope Wilton. (Not for the first time, one sees that Demetrius is by far the luckier bridegroom.)

The lovers' scenes in the forest are among the funniest I've ever seen, with lots of knockabout physical comedy, and of course the amateur actors' performance of Pyramus and Thisbe (possibly the most foolproof comic twenty minutes in all of world drama) is hurt-yourself-with-laughing hilarious, with a few touches even Dream veterans will not have seen before.

The worst production of the Dream I ever saw was still fun. This is one of the best. You do the math.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Roundhouse Spring 2007 and on tour

There is much to enjoy in Tim Supple's multicultural Dream, a very little to seriously dislike, but also a lot that either doesn't work as well as it's meant to or just doesn't hang together.

So your happiness with this production will depend on your inclination or ability to respond to parts rather than the whole.

Set in India with an all-Asian cast, and performed in a half-dozen subcontinent languages along with English (which is not always the easiest to understand), this is a production that hopes to compensate in spectacle and evocation of the exotic for what it may sacrifice in clarity and Shakespearean orthodoxy.

And indeed the most successful bits are the most colourful. Each of the several dances called for in the text is the occasion for a stage full of beautiful colour, movement and music. Titania and her fairies are as comfortable above the stage performing aerial ballets as on the ground.

Some of the transformation into Indian staging is also attractive. The 'rude mechanicals' of the Athenian Working Men's Amateur Dramatic Society work very nicely as Indian street traders, and the magic flower that makes people fall in love leaves a streak of red dye across their eyes.

It is also a nice touch to have Ajay Kumar's Puck hovering around the edges of every scene as more of a benign guiding spirit than mischievous elf.

On the other hand, very few of the other characterisations are developed or transformed in interesting or even consistent ways. Jay Fernandes' Bottom is attractive, but in a strictly generic way, bringing nothing special to the role. As is now almost more the rule than the exception, the two royal couples are doubled, but Archana Ramaswamy's sulking Hippolyta and passionate Titania are strictly by the numbers, as are P R Jijoy's formal Theseus and imperious Oberon.

The four young lovers seem to be acting against type, with Yuki Ellias' Hermia too clingy for the runaway and Shanaya Rafaat making Helena far too bright, feisty and ironic for her self-debasement to ring true. And the only distinction one can see between Prasanna Mahagamage's Demetrius and Chandan Roy Sanyal's Lysander is that the latter seems marginally more randy, unable to keep his hands off whoever he is in love with at the moment.

A programme note tells us that the jumble of languages was revolutionary in India, where this production began, but unless you are enough of a linguist and sociologist to catch implications of subtle distinctions in caste or tone, it adds nothing and subtracts the pleasure that might come from hearing Shakespeare's words well spoken.

Serious negatives: for no reason other than the easy laugh, Bottom is given a gourd-shaped phallus along with his donkey's ears. After his night with Titania it has a bright red cover, though whether that is meant to be a condom or evidence of severe damage to the fairy queen is not clear.

And this production succeeds in the one thing I would have sworn was impossible. I have always believed Pyramus and Thisbe, the amateur actors' play in the last act, to be the funniest 20 minutes in world drama and absolutely indestructible. But Tim Supple has managed to suck all the comedy out of it.

I grant that the last few moments are deliberately played straight, for their lovely pathos, which is a legitimate and effective choice. But the rest is played for comedy and just lies there like a lump. I honestly never believed that could be done.

I could not recommend this as anyone's first Dream, because too little has been added to compensate for what has been lost. Shakespearean veterans can enjoy the filigree around the edges, filling in the rest from memories of other productions.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Novello Theatre January-February 2009

Gregory Doran's RSC Dream is essentially a recycling of his 2006 production, though with a lot of the sparkle diminished, and few of the changes real improvements.

The play is indestructible, and even a fairly lacklustre version will always be fun. But I saw this with someone new to the play, and I did not see in her the transports of delight other productions have inspired in other Dream neophytes.

(Reminder: mismatched lovers meet fairies, magic love potions complicate things, Bottom gets an ass's head, Puck says mortals are fools - that one.)

In what is becoming almost the standard design, Doran makes the fairies bedraggled punks and goths, with Puck (Mark Hadfield) an ageing, rather earthbound satyr. 

Neither Peter de Jersey's Oberon nor Andrea Harris's Titania has much of the magical or passionate about them, a couple of flying sequences are particularly awkward, and only the fact that the fairies remain onstage through much of the play, mocking and reacting to the humans' behaviour, generates any fresh comedy.

The four young lovers are characterised in familiar ways, Kathryn Drysdale's Hermia taking the power of her prettiness for granted and well on her way to becoming a shrew, while Natalie Walter's Helena is the plain-Jane best friend who - if this were a teen movie - would blossom in the last reel. Edward Bennett's buttoned-down Demetrius and Tom Davey's louche Lysander become indistinguishable by the forest scenes.

Doran's conception of the amateur actors is not especially imaginative or funny, and Joe Dixon is one of the least individualised or impressive Bottoms I've seen. Their climactic performance of 'Pyramus and Thisbe' is funny - it is simply impossible for that foolproof twenty minutes not to be - but it never approaches the double-over-with-pain-from-laughing funny I've seen others take it to, though Ryan Gage's Thisbe comes close to stealing the whole show.

No production of the Dream can be a failure - the play is simply too good for that to happen - and any production is better than none at all. But this is not a particularly good one.

Gerald Berkowitz


Lyric Hammersmith Theatre   February-March 2012

Filter are a company that like to mess about with doctored microphones, sound effects and music, and put on plays that give them the opportunity to do so. When they pick a play that can not only support such messing about but actually thrives on it, the result can be a lot of fun. 

A Midsummer Night's Dream is such a play, and Filter's messing about with it is not only wholly in the Shakespearean spirit but a constantly surprising theatrical delight. 

The company and director Sean Holmes have deconstructed the play into three distinct strands and present each in a different style, and the result, which ought to be a mess, somehow all fits together in a celebration of Shakespearean silliness.

The four lovers who run afoul of fairy magic are played fairly straight – that is, in a comic manner not far from how they might be done in a conventional production, though actually much more successfully than in many, with all the comic confusions fully exploited and each character nicely individualised.

Meanwhile, Bottom and the rude mechanicals are almost entirely ad libbed in what I'll guess are the results of rehearsal improvisations around the basics of each scene, allowing for lots of contemporary and anachronistic jokes. 

And the fairies are completely sent up, with Oberon a nerd in a superman suit who is obviously lucky far beyond his merits to have a chance with the sultry Titania, while Puck is clearly the real brains of the partnership. 

All this is accompanied by echo effects, rock music, flying, people walking through walls, and sight and sound gags of every sort. Bottom's transformation into an ass is indicated entirely through sound effects, every set speech that could be turned into a song is, and if letting the squabbles of the lovers climax in a food fight is going a bit too far, it's too far in the right direction.

A Midsummer Night's Dream is a very silly play, and making it even sillier doesn't hurt it a bit. (It's also a romantic and poetic play, and yes, that element is lost here, but it's an acceptable sacrifice, one a more conventional production might also choose.) 

Ed Gaughan's Peter Quince doubles as a host and compere who is never really in control of the evening. Uncredited in the programme, Mark Benton is supposedly plucked out of the audience to cover for a no-show guest star as Bottom, and takes over his scenes with Shakespearean gusto. Ferdy Roberts, suggesting a stagehand with little patience for these artsy types, is a refreshingly unfairylike Puck and Jonathan Broadbent generates laughter and sympathy as the out-of-his-league Oberon.

I suppose there are academics and purists out there who would be too offended by the unceasing liberties with the text and expected characterisations to be able to enjoy this. Poor them.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Noel Coward Theatre  Autumn  2013

It has a pair of high-profile stars and low ticket prices, so Michael Grandage's new production of The Dream is drawing in new audiences. And this is an ideal first Dream for anyone new to Shakespeare – always clear, very funny, and inventively imagined while remaining true to the play.

Skilful trimming, generally of the more 'poetic' and rhetorical flourishes, brings the running time down to just over two hours, and director Grandage has guided his actors to the clearest and most conversational speaking style, so there is never any danger of the audience losing the thread or tuning out. 

Grandage says his inspiration for the magical forest that is the centre of this play comes from the annual Burning Man Festival, a kind of Woodstock-in-the-Nevada-desert for grown-ups who haven't given up on their Age of Aquarius ideals, smoking materials and/or wardrobes. 

Certainly Titania's fairy band look like they wandered in from a revival of Hair, but their colourful faux-Native clothes, relaxing cigarettes and general pansexual lying about in heaps and indiscriminate cuddling actually work quite nicely. 

The play is about a world of benign natural magic triumphing, after a few missteps, over the restraints of convention and the cold rule of law, and the hippie image pleasantly conjures up a world as different as could be from the dark-wood buttoned-down Athenian court. 

It's not too surprising that in this inhibition-free atmosphere the four young lovers find themselves more randy than is the norm for Dream productions, and the gradual stripping away of their clothes is more a matter of hormonal urges than brambles. 

Sheridan Smith's Hippolyta is deliberately made to look a bit matronly, so that her sexy and giggly gamin of a Titania is as much a contrast as possible. I've seen more imperious fairy queens and more sexually voracious, but Smith's is by far the cutest and most delightful ever. 

As Bottom, the amateur actor with the ass's head, David Walliams does his familiar broad camp shtick (In this imagining Bottom and Peter Quince are clearly more than just friends), which is funny and crowd-pleasing but a bit of a disappointment as the actor has clearly missed an opportunity to stretch himself beyond the overly familiar and easy route. 

Padriac Delaney as Theseus/Oberon leads the cast in the absolutely clear and natural speaking of the verse, Gavin Fowler's Puck is a bit too unformed as a character for my taste, and the newly sexy characterisations make the four lovers – Susannah Fielding, Sam Swainsbury, Katherine Kingsley and Stefano Braschi – more individualised and more fun than they frequently have been, with special credit to Kingsley for finding ways to make Helena stronger and less pathetic than usual. 

The last twenty minutes of the play – the amateur actors' attempt at Pyramus And Thisbe – is the most foolproof bit of hilarity in all of world drama, and this version does it full justice. 

Indeed, the highest praise I can give Michael Grandage and his cast is that, for all the inventions and interpretations, they essentially stay out of Shakespeare's way, bringing out all that is delightful in this delight-filled comedy.

Gerald Berkowitz


Barbican Theatre  May 2016 and touring

I may have some minor cavils, but this RSC Dream gets the one absolutely essential thing about the play absolutely right – it quickly establishes and never forgets that this is a happy, joyous, celebratory and just plain fun play. 

From the opening moment when Lucy Ellinson's Puck wanders onto an all-but-bare stage and her face lights up with delight, there is never any doubt that we are in a safe and fairy-blessed place where we can relax and just enjoy ourselves. 

The RSC is celebrating this Shakespearean year by touring the country, co-producing this play with local amateur and community theatres, the nonprofessional actors playing the amateur actors who are characters in the play (and – need it be said? – with far more skill and polish than the inept characters they portray) 

In London Bottom and his friends are played by members of the Tower Theatre Company, and you wouldn't be able to tell that if you weren't told, while Titania's fairy court is filled out by children from local schools who bring their amateurs' joy in being onstage to otherwise fully polished performances as well. 

Although director Erica Whyman and designer Tom Piper set the play in the 1940s, nothing is really made of the period, and much more is built on putting all the action on the stage and backstage space of an empty theatre. 

A rehearsal piano and a ladder become all-purpose props, some idly rehearsing musicians form themselves into an onstage band, and the whole make-believe air helps establish and maintain the play (in the sense of fun) quality of the play. 

Some of the theatrical setting carries over into the performances and characterisations. I refuse to believe that Chu Omambala's rich-voiced and sinuously moving Oberon wasn't inspired by the late actor-dancer Geoffrey Holder, and Lucy Ellinson is prone to slipping into a Bob Fosse strut whenever she has a hat in hand. 

Ayesha Dharker gives Titania the confident sexiness of a jazz diva, and the play's several opportunities for dance are turned by movement director Sian Williams into modest but polished Broadway-style production numbers. 

As I said, the Tower Theatre amateurs playing the onstage amateurs are totally polished, finding all the warm humour in their scenes and integrating their style seamlessly with the RSC actors. 

John Chapman is as happy, believable and fully characterised a Bottom as I've ever seen, and while I've occasionally laughed harder at Pyramus And Thisbe, I can have no complaints about how much I laughed here. 

As is almost always the case, the four young lovers are relatively bland, and despite an attempt to distinguish Jack Holden's amiable booby of a Lysander from Chris Nayak's more pompous Demetrius, and giving Laura Riseborough's Helena a bit more backbone and dignity than usual, their scenes are generally the weakest. 

It's only in London for a week. But perhaps you'll catch up with it as other local amateurs join in during its national tour, or when it settles in Stratford this summer. 

This may not be a Dream for the ages. But it is a Dream to be fully and unreservedly enjoyed while you're watching it.

Gerald Berkowitz


Young Vic Theatre  Spring 2017

Every once in a while a director sets out to test the strength and elasticity of a Shakespeare play by deliberately fighting the text to make it say something it doesn't. 

And very occasionally – an anticolonial Tempest, a feminist Shrew, some gender-bending casting – the experiment does illuminate or re-invigorate an over-familiar play. 

But more often than not the messing about with the play merely shows that Shakespeare got it right the first time. 

In this new Young Vic production director Joe Hill-Gibbins offers us a deliberately uncomic, unromantic, unpoetic, unmagical, undreamlike Dream. And it doesn't work. 

Hill-Gibbins' vision of the play is too defined by negatives to offer an alternative, and the play is stronger than he is and keeps insisting on being funny or romantic or poetic even when he doesn't want it to. 

And too much of his approach and too many of his staging devices have been done before, more imaginatively and successfully. 

To counter any sense of a Disney fairyland, the stage floor is ankle-deep in muck that everyone has to slog through clumsily while getting dirtier and dirtier (It's been done before). Most of the fairies have been cut (It's been done), while Puck is more a grumbling hardman than mischievous sprite (Been done). 

Supposedly offstage actors remain onstage, either understood to be invisible or doubling as fairies or trees (It's been done, a lot more imaginatively and evocatively, but creating theatrical magic is not Hill-Gibbins' intention). 

We have to take on faith that the pair of tights tied to his head and the similar phallus hanging from his waist make Bottom an ass, since the actor is not allowed to play donkey in any way, and it is surely deliberate (if counterproductive) to eliminate any hints of difference and individual personalities among the four lovers. 

The director's innovations are not entirely subtractive. Like some of his predecessors he uses the doubling of Theseus/Oberon and Hippolyta/Titania to introduce hints of the human pair being affected by their experience of being fairies. 

He also allows Bottom some hazy recollection of his adventure, while Hermia seems to have been traumatised into near-catatonia by hers. 

Other touches, like a large mirror across the back of the stage, which is later painted over, or a musical fairy whose operatic trills seem intended to be a joke, don't go much of anywhere.

Lloyd Hutchinson as the surly Puck and Leo Bill as a less egotistical Bottom than usual manage to inject some life and comic energy into their scenes, and by offering glimpses of an adolescent drama queen Jemima Rooper gives Hermia more of an identity than the other lovers. 

Michael Gould as a particularly nasty Oberon and Anastasia Hille as a sensual Titania both seem straitjacketed by the single note they are allowed to play. 

This glum and colourless Dream serves largely as an object lesson to ambitious directors – mess around with Shakespeare all you want. But be sure you have something interesting – and, above all, theatrically alive – to offer.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Reviews of A Midsummer Night's Dream  1999-2017


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