Hempen home-spuns: Bell Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream

A Midsummer Night's Dream is certainly one of Shakespeare’s most popular plays. I don’t think there’s barely a day that goes by without another production opening somewhere in the world. Yet despite its popularity, there is a robustness to it that withstands this very proliferation – no matter how many cuts or omissions are made to it, the inherent magic of it still stands, still transports audiences to the “palace wood a mile without the town” where the Rude Mechanicals, the four lovers, and a host of wayward fairies converge upon a midsummer’s night.
Presented here by Bell Shakespeare for a schools audience, it is characterised by cocooning warmth and a very earthy, tactile aesthetic. From the curved wooden wall of Teresa Negroponte’s set, almost like a ruined ship’s hull turned on its side, to the costumes and the actors’ physicality, the robustness of Shakespeare’s script bounces back at you, even if it is somewhat truncated and reshaped.

Performed by Bell Shakespeare’s resident education troupe, The Players, this Dream is certainly playful and spirited, and I cannot really fault the cast at all. While Titania lacked some of the sexual allure and chemistry with Bottom and Oberon, this was less to do with the performance than with the tailored script. Puck, however, was perhaps too bland and devoid of the certain maverick capriciousness with which he seems to leap off the page; this, too, could also be a decision influenced by the script as opposed to a conscious performance choice. They were also quite robust in their physicality – from Oberon and Titania’s entrances and exits through the holes in the rear of the set, to the fights between the lovers and Mechanicals’ reaction to Bottom’s restoration. Director Peter Evans (Julius Caesar, Macbeth, Phèdre) has again chosen to use Meyerhold’s system of biomechanics in his staging, but rather than feeling like it’s been imposed upon the production as in Phedre and Macbeth, it seems to have grown from the Bottom up, is an inherently natural choice of movement. The only noticeable instance of Meyerhold’s technique is in a few of the early scene changes, as the court is changed to the forest, with tables and chairs being upturned and strewn across the stage in a beautiful ballet-like slow-motion.
Tailored to ninety minutes for a school audience, there is a rather distinctive refocusing of the play at work. For a school audience, aged (roughly) between thirteen and sixteen, the choice to focus on the quartet of lovers – Hermia, Demetrius, Helena, Lysander – seems an obvious one. But this also comes at the cost of the fairies, whose scenes are whittled down to two main scenes and several interludes with Puck and Oberon; Titania, it seems, has almost been written out. The Mechanicals, too, perhaps suffer somewhat, though what they lack in stage-time they more than make up for in exuberance and liveliness. While this is all well and fine, it does leave the play with very little of the breathing room and the space which is evident in Shakespeare’s (full) play. Bottom’s ass-ified antics are also trimmed, and we lose a lot of the humour and the interaction with the fairies in the Titania-Bottom scene. Quibbles aside, The Players facilitate their role-and-costume changes with ease and some considerable speed and, in the case of the few Mechanicals-to-Court transitions, with surprising visible poetry and poignancy. The Mechanicals’ performance of ‘The most lamentable comedy and most cruel death of Pyramus and Thisbe’ is quite brilliantly conceived, even if it does feature one of the most horrific death scenes I’ve ever seen them enact. There is a relish and a bubbling barely-contained sense of fun and joy in The Players’ performing of these “hempen home-spuns” that I could easily watch them as they went about their daily lives, if there was ever such a play hidden within Shakespeare’s oeuvre.
Ultimately though, while it is playful and spirited and physically robust, it felt as though there was a bit of the sex and magic missing from its staging and conception, and I’m still not sure if it is a directorial or dramaturgical decision, a performance-based one, or a result of the script being trimmed-down. Following Puck’s apology (“If we shadows have offended”), I felt that I had woken in the middle of the Dream without seeing it through to its full conclusion; all the elements were there, I just needed to ‘sleep’ a little longer. Maybe with ten minutes of script restored to its already-ninety minutes running time, it might find the breathing-space it needs to be a complete Dream in and of itself.

Fn: In a beautiful twist of coincidence, the story of Theseus has been told in three parts over the course of this year. In order, they run A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Bull, The Moon and the Coronet of Stars, Phèdre. In fact, Midsummer can be read as a reworking of the story of Theseus and the Minotaur, with Bottom as both beast and the thread to lead the way out of the labyrinthine forest…

Theatre playlist: 22. Blue Danube (Main titles from Rake), David McCormack

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