Theatre Review: A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Young Vic

This Dream is a bit of surprise- silent weavings of the spirit (or fairies) explode at the end of director Joe Hill-Gibbins’ interpretation to give us something in the epilogue that is both nightmarish and joyful and brings new meanings to the play’s normal tranquil self.

To this end it is clever.  At the beginning, as the audience file in, three mirrors arranged in a triptych hang threateningly in front of the audience. We can’t see anything else and in the dark they shine their truth- rows and rows of audience alert with expectation, fear, fantasy and childish demands. It gives a picture of the underbelly of reality and the deepest of our darkest selves when we stare moronically into it.  In its reflection we aren’t quite real, we are individuals, but we can’t see for the wood of the collective.

The lights go up and we are faced with a muddy field. The performers file on moodily, like a class of unruly school children brought to attention in a playground, all dressed as if they have stumbled into the wrong theatre- they look like they should be in Caryl Churchill’s Fen.  However, they are in Dream now and they must do something. So, they sing Gaudeamus. They sing ardently, threateningly, as if possessed, although we are not meant to take it seriously. But it is as if it is a warning. Then the play proper begins, but no one leaves the stage when it is not their scene. Actors turn their backs and stare deep into the mirror, or flop, face down into the mud, as if sucked of their life and spirit only to rise again for their cues.  We are made aware we are watching a show within a show within a show. How far can the mirror reflect back? There’s a sort of anger at the audience. A sort of hatred, irritation almost. And a challenge.

We rattle through at a fast rate.  The Royal Athenians and Noblemen double up as the fairies who then, as must be interpreted here, enact out the Athenians’ hidden desires. A passionate Michael Gould as both Theseus and Oberon strides the stage like an enraged sorcerer. He is Athenian reality and the dark fairy underbelly of that reality at the same-time and proves it by sporting a bare midriff. He is in charge of everything- the fairy world (make believe?) and the world of the Athenians. He thinks he is in control. Back in the real world he patronises Bottom and the mechanicals by condescending to give them his time and thinks he is being nice. He huffs and puffs when he loses control. He sees something that is real between Hippolyta and Bottom who both remember something from their deepest fantasies… and cannot stand the reality he has brought into being and thought he may control.

The young Athenian noble women Hermia ( Jemima Rooper) and Helena (Anna Madeley) take themselves very seriously. They have to. Demetrius (Oliver Alvin-Wilson) and Lysander (John Dagleish) the Athenian youths, are crude and would rape their women if they could. Their love is objectification. We are not talking making love, but violent sex. Hermia, Helena’s friend and in love with Lysander, is violent, aggressive when Lysander, mistakenly drugged by Loyd Hutchinson’s Rab C Nesbit like Puck, falls for Helena. Her and Helena fight, their words lost in the mud.  But we realise we hardly care about the words as this production does not care so much. Nor does Hippolyta/ Titania. Anastasia Hille plays them both and clicks her fingers in frustration at Melanie Pappenheim’s Philosrate/ Fairy who, with lovely voice, sings her lines. But Hippolyta/Titania wants none of that seriousness, she is impatient for things to happen.

Everything is built up and broken down and vice versa in this place. Like Leo Bill’s Bottom who Puck does not just make into an Ass but a rather strange half man half woman like creature, with misshapen lumps on their chest that could be breasts, a plastic water bottle for a penis (it has just been used by Puck who emptied its contents onto Lysander as if peeing onto him, the effect is violent). There are lumps and growths on Bottom’s back. The stuffed tights that are meant to be ears could also be pigtails. The audience split their sides. And still they laugh, when, like a scapegoat everyone can bully around, Bottom is made to cruelly crawl on  hands and knees round and round the half circular stage (which when reflected in the mirror along with  Johannes Schutz’s light strip has the possibility to seem like a full moon).

Yet Bottom actually has the last laugh. His character progresses, changes and emerges from a chrysalis into a new reality. Amidst all the dark nightmarish stuff, the spells and the chanting, this is the light. This is the light to oppose the dark love presented by Lysander and Demetrius and the controlling spells cast by a tight fisted Theseus/ Oberon. Bottom is all blinky eyed wonderful spontaneity and warmth in the end and the psyche can’t cope with that.

There are many conceits in this show. One is the doubling up of the Athenian Royals as the fairies. Does the fairy world represent the fantasy world, where we try to take control because we can’t in real life? Then, we see what happens when that fantasy world explodes into the real one. Chaos. But there is the idea also that the actors are entrapped by the needs, wants and desires of the audience. In fact, the actors are in a prison looking through the mirror of life to an impassive and self obsessed voyeuristic audience on the other side, the collective. This is one way of looking at it. The actors and creatives are trapped in the desires of others, which is themselves as well. Isn’t this art? Isn’t this how it is? It’s brilliant.

Until 1st April

Photo: Leo Bill (Bottom) with the company of A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Young Vic © Keith Pattison 

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