2nd July, 2016, matinee
To celebrate 400 years since Shakespeare’s death, Erica Whyman has undertaken the mammoth task of creating a collaborative play made for and by the nation. She has brought together professional actors and creatives with 14 amateur theatre groups from across the country, as well as hundreds of schoolchildren (as Titania’s Fairy Train), in a production that perfectly encapsulates the spirit of carnival; the uniting of people from all walks of life in celebration of the magic of theatre. Following a nationwide tour, A Midsummer Night’s Dream returns for an encore at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre.
The performance I saw featured the Canterbury Players as the Mechanicals and their joy was infectious. Holding their own admirably against the professionals, Lisa Nightingale particularly stands out as Bottom, balancing the more self-important, hammy moments with a good natured naivety. The Pyramus and Thisbe scene is an absolute triumph of comic timing - Hannah Newell’s Snout enthusiastically makes the most of her scene-stealing role as ‘Wall’ - even the doubting Theseus and Hippolyta failed to remain straight-faced. The actors perform with a self-awareness which removes the cruel edge of some interpretations and transforms it into a collaborative joke in which we egg on the company in honest jest.
The charm of Whyman’s production seeps into the uncanny woodland scenes. Doorways and staircases lead nowhere and loop back on themselves, creating a sense of magical mischief and upping the farcical nature of the lovers’ plot, further exasperating the confused characters. Lucy Ellinson’s Puck is mischief personified, she is inexhaustible, nimble and spritely, flitting through the space with impish glee, while Chu Omambala’s Oberon exudes ethereal languidness. Dressed in a brilliant white suit, yet barefooted and barechested, Oberon’s sensuality is matched by Titania’s (Ayesha Dharker) rose petal strewn bed, a sexually liberated sanctuary in contrast with the military stiffness of Theseus’ court and Egeus’ patriarchal dictation.
It often is easy to overlook the lovers’ amidst the glamour of the Fairies and the rambunctiousness of the Mechanicals, yet here they shine equally as bright, from Lysander and Demetrius’ (Jack Holden and Chris Nayak) preening and posturing, to Helena’s (Laura Riseborough) endearing dorkiness, and Hermia’s (Mercy Ojelade) near gravity-defying attacks on her rival. The lovers are flung hither and thither and there was an audible cheer when the complications finally resolved themselves.
Whyman explains that she set the production in 1940’s Britain as it was a time of great change following the Second World War, yet it was also a time of hope, consistent with the play’s timeless themes of love, community and acceptance. I grinned and laughed the whole way through A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and as the Mechanicals, Fairies and Courtiers came together for the final dance the sense of pure joy and national pride was palpable. This ambitious undertaking to unite Britain under the legacy of our most renowned playwright has proven utterly heartwarming and inspirational. This sentiment seems particularly pertinent as we are similarly entering into a period of great change and turmoil. Following the political and social consequences of the recent EU referendum, now, more than ever, even as our leaders crumble, we as a nation need to unite in order to overcome these hard times.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream: A Play for the Nation plays at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre until 16th July.