Shakespeare's Globe, London SE1 / Courtyard Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon
Opened 21 / 15 May, 2008
**** / *****

A Midsummer Night’s Dream is the Shakespeare for everyone, and the linchpin of many a company’s summer schedule. Consequently, for critics who have seen an average of two or more Dreams a year since some time last century, it is easy to get jaded. However, both of 2008’s major revivals so far are corkers.
In Stratford, the RSC have revived Gregory Doran’s production, first seen in 2005 and, I suspect, perhaps an unconscious influence on Globe director Jonathan Munby. In both productions, the quartet of Athenian lovers gradually lose their clothes as the night of confusion progresses: for Munby, they shuck off their formal black to reveal livelier colours beneath, whereas Doran exposes more and more flesh as their desires hurtle out of control. In both, the fairies stalking the action are quite punky, although in Stratford there is both more Lycra and much more stalking, as they provide a mocking choric commentary on the mortals’ mishaps. And in both, a huge globular moon hangs over performers and audience alike; it is as if Mike Britton at the outdoor Globe did not trust God to provide His own. However, some elements may simply be in general contemporary currency for stagings of the play; for instance, Michael Boyd’s earlier RSC production was the first I had seen to make explicit the filthy jokes we had all imagined in the rude mechanicals’ play-within-a-play, such as the references to kissing the wall’s “stones” and its/his “hole”, a policy gleefully followed by both Doran and Munby.
Peter de Jersey and Andrea Harris are an imperious Oberon and Titania at Stratford, with de Jersey perhaps overusing the richness of his voice. In contrast, Tom Mannion and Siobhan Redmond at the Globe play the mortal Theseus and Hippolyta in Received Pronunciation and revert to their native Scots accents as the fairy king and queen; Mannion, in particular, makes great play of the informal-sounding cadences of Glaswegian to undercut many of his lines. (The roles are not doubled in the RSC production.) The Globe’s Puck, Michael Jibson, is an enthusiastic mischief-maker; Mark Hadfield in Stratford is both unusually old for the role and less comfortable cackling puckishly than in sardonic or deadpan mode – an unusual approach, but one he uses to tremendous effect.
In the central scene in which the young lovers find their affections spun every which way, the Globe’s actors go for high-speed frenzy, and do it well. However, they are quite eclipsed by their Stratford counterparts, who give probably the best rendition I have seen of this episode. It is a particular joy to see the constant ambivalence in Natalie Walter’s liberated librarian of a Helena: she so wants to believe Demetrius’s new protestations of love, but keeps telling herself that it must be a trick, yet begins to luxuriate naughtily in the attention anyway.
As for the Bottom line: Joe Dixon’s lumpish, Brummie-accented Bottom, with a full ass’s head magically added, is so confident in himself that he almost matches the clowning expertise of Paul Hunter at the Globe. Hunter knows that he need not always go large, and some gags work better when thrown away; but when he goes for it, as he does with Bottom/Pyramus’s death in the mechanicals’ playlet, he is a comedy typhoon. Nevertheless, I do not think I would have responded as I did at the Globe if Doran’s Stratford production had not first re-awakened my wonder and delight in the play. A colleague once told me, “A four-star show is excellent in every way; a five-star show is a four-star show plus magic.” This pair of sweet Dreams are a perfect example.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

Return to index of reviews for the year 2008

Return to master reviews index

Return to main theatre page

Return to Shutters homepage