★★★★ A Midsummer Night’s Dream at Southwark Playhouse
(Yet Another) New Take on A Midsummer Night’s Dream Succeeds in Breathing Fresh, Manic Life into the Bard’s Oft-Perform’d Comedy.
A young, exuberant and – let’s be honest – attractive cast populate Simon Evans’ purist-baiting run-through (literally) of the tale of love triangles, transmogrification, and one of theatre’s most famous plays within a play.
The RSC – even at its most playful – this is not. Instead, Go People have produced something of a barnstorming York Notes of a Midsummer – all the famous lines and memorable moments are there, but they are given fresh life in a healthily disrespectful tearing up of the text. This is sub-2 hour Shakespeare, breakneck and bolshy. The traverse stage is unencumbered by anything much resembling staging or props. The lighting is one note, and the sound cues are non-existent, putting the text, you might think, centre stage.
But this production is really all about the performers. Evans’ has taken as his motif the central role given by Shakespeare to The Mechanicals (Quince, Bottom et al), around whose rehearsals the rest of the story is draped. Here, the cast are mechanicals themselves – a group of actors whose intention to perform A Midsummer Night’s Dream is immune to the fact that they are ten people short of the required numbers. And so, our cast of seven become a dramatis personæ of seventeen, of which five are actors performing yet other roles. A play within a play within a play, then?
The low-tech approach, emphasising the power of imagination, is both effective as a means of allowing the performers scope to shine, and also effective in bringing the two opposing flanks of the audience into the performance themselves. Actors playing multiple characters is always fun – especially when the script calls for quick changes and being in two places at once. The danger, however, is that such hijinks can be tiring, for the performers and the audience, and can become tiresome. Thankfully, the latter is avoided, although the final act performance of The Mechanicals’ ‘Pyramus and Thisbe’ – usually a triumphant climax – feels forced and overwrought.
Nevertheless, Southwark Playhouse deserve to have a hit on their hands. The acting talent alone – a who’s who of future stars of stage and screen – is worth the ticket price, as is Freddie Fox’s scene-stealing, nay, showstopping transition from Bottom-as-man to Bottom-as-ass: eye-popping stuff!