A Midsummer Night's Dream is a comedy. It is as well to mention this at the outset, since such a minor consideration seems to have slipped director Niall Henry's mind. That is the charitable interpretation of his shrieking, whirling, senseless production; the alternatives are either that he and his company think this farrago is indeed funny, or that they do not in fact give a toss.
True, the audience on the night I saw the show was sparse – barely 25 in one of the main Riverside spaces – but their response was muted by more than lack of numbers. Every seven or eight minutes an isolated titter would break out, but not once in two uninterrupted hours was there a general laugh.
The nine actors career virtually non-stop around the stage like Legs & Co. warming up for one of their less inspired routines (Henry trained with Marcel Marceau, you see), bellowing almost all their lines and addressing each other directly only when it absolutely cannot be helped. Whenever a choice is encountered between oratorical flourish and comprehensibility, sense loses out every time: "Stand forth", "Sit down" and "Scratch my head" are among the fairly unambiguous lines which Henry and his company treat as linguistic ornamentation rather than actual indicators of what should be happening.
When actors are playing fairies, they wave grey umbrellas around; as the mechanicals – you know, the knockabout bits – they whack on red noses and sit in a row at the front of the stage, staring straight ahead (only one or two deigning to mug frantically). The only major piece of set is a wheeled contraption somewhere between a giant, Daliesque hospital gurney and a mobile playground climbing frame.
The height difference between Hermia and Helena is reversed, so that Derry Anne McEvoy's Helena has to stand on a chair to make any sense of Hermia's lines about her shortness; McEvoy's delivery is particularly shrill, and is no doubt confusing bats all over Hammersmith. Fiona McGeown handles some serviceable musical arrangements, but varies the pitch and volume of Puck's lines seemingly according to whim, whilst her costume and capering make her resemble a cross between one of Beckett's tramps and Lucinda Childs suffering a series of acid flashbacks. If Brendan Ellis's Quince is moribund, his Theseus is positively sepulchral. Let us not peer too closely at Ciarán McCauley's sagging Bottom.
Henry's Sligo-based Blue Raincoat company seems to take its name from one of Leonard Cohen's more morose songs, which is nevertheless funnier than anything on show here. They have apparently won a slew of awards "for powerful, physical theatre"; on the basis of this first visit to London, the mind can only boggle. After long and careful consideration, I am reasonably certain that it is the most atrocious Shakespeare I have ever seen, bar none.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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