What repulses the youth of today most deeply? Not sex, not violence, not profanity: if you want to get an audience of GCSE-age children groaning "Eeeeuuggghh!" as with one voice, try a spot of foot-kissing. Admittedly, the company of Tara Arts' touring production of A Midsummer Night's Dream (which ends in Birmingham this week) perform barefoot, but John Leary's otherwise robust Lysander and Shobna Gulati's Helena seemed quite unprepared for the revulsion which greeted this evidence of the change in Lysander's affections. (Poor Leary later elicited another such moment when, doubling as Flute/Thisbe in the mechanicals' play, he kissed the "dead" Bottom/Pyramus – this response, though, seemed to be due to simple teenage homophobia.)
Jatinder Verma has cut the text to a brisk two-hour trot: out, for instance, goes much of the more tired comic business, including all the subordinate fairies and the first three-quarters of the mechanicals' performance, and out goes that dreary exchange about Theseus's hunting dogs. The remainder is reordered so that we first see Bottom waking from his "dream", then the mechanicals' casting session, and only then the entangled lovers brought before Duke Theseus; the ducal court, in accordance with Tara's "Indo-Anglian" aesthetic, is arranged like a darbar. Similarly, snatches of Bollywood playback music are used as occasional punctuation during the romantic entanglements and, most productively, Antony Bunsee plays Puck with the madcap glee of a djinn or afreet.
Sometimes the setting throws up enlightening moments. The issue of the subordination of women, in Egeus's wish to bend Hermia to his will, gains in emphasis (Hippolyta slaps Theseus in the face when he refuses to overbear Athenian law on the point), and Oberon and Titania emerge as the more honest, fractious faces of the politically-matched Theseus and Hippolyta. As often, though, there are drawbacks. The generally declamatory style of delivery grows wearing after a while, and a determination to make full use of Magdalen Rubalcava's ingenious design leads to moments of confusion – didn't Bottom just shoo the supposedly invisible Puck offstage? And what are the mechanicals doing emerging from the same trapdoors to the underworld as the fairies? The school-age audience cheer and whoop at the end of each half, but their less than captivated conduct during the performance suggests that they are responding to the "show" rather than either the play or the production as a whole.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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