A Midsummer Night’s Dream is arguably Shakespeare’s most adaptable play. Dream’s magical and mythical elements lend themselves to imaginative staging and, in the hands of one of the country’s most imaginative theatre companies, Headlong, the pairing seems ideal.
Director Natalie Abrahami has chosen to set the action against an early 1950s Hollywood film set where director Robin P(for Puck) Goodfellow is shooting a Sword & Sandal epic starring a Burton and Taylor-esque Theseus and Hippolyta. It’s a clever concept that is staged well with a mix of film and backstage props but it never comfortably sits within Shakespeare’s plot. The glamour of Hollywood film stars only being at best a tenuous fit with the tale of Athenian nobility.
The relevance of the concept becomes clearer once the film’s director has a breakdown and we enter the dark forest of his nightmare. Goodfellow is transformed into Puck and his love-struck film stars into King and Queen of the Fairies. Oberon and Titania. Mischievous sprites and fairies take on a sense of the absurd and some of Shakespeare’s wittiest comedy takes full flight.
There is plenty of surreal humor here as the dream-like qualities are fully explored in song, dance, slapstick and full use of theatrical special effects. The Mechanicals’ play within a play works well as a climax to the madcap fun but, overall, its not quite enough to fully redeem the production.
You have to admire the sheer theatricality and energy of Headlong’s staging but generally the staging does upstage the text, with many lines rendered inaudible under the exuberance of the slapstick action. Hermia and Helena’s verbal duel, for example, is reduced to little more than rapid fire mumbled shouts, losing much of the cleverly constructed wordplay.
Much more focus is needed from the ensemble to ensure that the Shakespearian verse is delivered with clarity and conviction. Without this backbone of the text, any attempt to make the play accessible to those new to Shakespeare becomes much more difficult.
There are, however. some wonderful elements in the production; David Holmes’ lighting and Tom Scutt’s design create an atmospheric setting. Ian William Galloway’s video designs add to the cinematic authenticity. Overall, though, while the concept is exciting and hilarious in parts, it does need some more work to become fully successful.
Photo: Emily Joyce and members of the company in Headlong Theatre’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Photograph by Keith Pattison