Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon
Opened 9 June, 2006

Sometimes a set design can reinvent a theatre space whilst shying away from what is already built into the fabric of the venue. William Dudley’s design for the current +Titus Andronicus+ at Shakespeare’s Globe strikes me in this way, abjuring the upstage entrances and the “above” by swathing them in black fabric. At first, designer Sumant Kayakrishnan seems to have felt the same timidity as regards the Swan at Stratford: the corresponding areas are here wrapped in heavy paper. But as soon as the earthly elements of +A Midsummer Night’s Dream+ give way to the supernatural, the fairies literally tear their way through the barrier, leaving a pile of shreds and a bamboo framework on which they disport themselves. It’s a thrilling portrayal of the damage caused when the balance of the worlds is upset, but it is only one thrill among many.

Tim Supple’s production for his new company Dash Arts originated as a British Council-backed project, with a cast of Indian and Sri Lankan players, and the text spoken in a mixture of English and seven languages from the sub-continent. This proves no barrier whatever to understanding; moreover, we can appreciate the poetical sonorities of whatever language is being spoken at the time. Acrobatics are beginning to seem almost commonplace in British theatre, but this company’s work on ropes and silks is both impressive and meaningful: Titania goes to sleep in a kind of silken pupa suspended above the stage, so that when she wakes under an enchantment to fall in love with the ass Bottom there is a sense in which she is no longer the creature she had been. Bottom himself, played as an affable big-head (and, indeed, big-everything-else) by Joy Fernandes, acquires not only ass’s ears but a butternut squash between his legs – he is literally hung like a donkey.

There is a welcome edge of menace to the lovers’ contention (as, earlier, to Hermia’s arranged marriage-to-be), especially when Lysander and Demetrius have been daubed with magical love-juice, which here consists of handfuls of red powder and so suggests a mist of madness before the victims’ eyes. Matters are presided over by Ajay Kumar’s Puck, in scarlet dhoti and Mohawk haircut, who exactly catches the ambivalence of faery: mischievousness without innate compassion. And yet it still all ends in happiness and beauty.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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