John Retallack is eulogised in the programme of this, his final show as artistic director of the Oxford Stage Company, for his lucid, thoughtful approach to Shakespeare. His Midsummer Night's Dream is similarly free of any idiosyncratic, self-regarding overall "vision"; Retallack subordinates himself and his company to the play... for the most part – which makes that handful of moments so much more puzzling when he ignores the text for no apparent reason.
Niki Turner's set consists of an entirely un-sylvan large, grey box, but the simple deployment of a foliage-like lighting effect is enough to turn the playing area into the wood outside Athens. Likewise, as the confusion increases the lovers gradually divest themselves of their buttoned-up dark grey outfits to reveal the plain but loud colours underneath. Christopher Beck's Puck almost succeeds in being aggressively mischievous without becoming annoying, and in a beautiful incidental touch, Nicholas Beveney's endearing Frank Bruno of a Bottom begins to fall for the female Starveling (Hattie Ladbury) during the performance of their interlude at court. (On waking after his transformation back to human form, Beveney also slips in the obvious, filthy but hitherto never actually dared donkey gag: "methought I had...") Ladbury and former Flying Picket David Brett (playing Quince and Egeus) lead a number of folksy musical interludes, both instrumental and a capella.
Perhaps I am being condescending towards the school students who – almost inevitably, with this perennial set text – seem to make up most of the audience, but it seems to me that, having laid such a solid foundation, Retallack thinks himself free at various moments to caper around or even fly in the face of the script. There is no noticeable reason for the lovers to prance about in their sleep at two or three points, and it is scarcely plausible that Helena can fear the sleeping Lysander is dead when he is groping her breast at the time. If Bottom is going to recite Pyramus's pentameter lines with an exaggerated dum-de-dum rhythm, one would think the director might have corrected his several mis-scansions. My personal bête noire is the casting as the short, dark Hermia of an actress (Suzanne Hitchmough) who is every bit as tall as, and appreciably fairer than, Helena (Anna Francolini), thus rendering meaningless most of the women's squabbling in Act Three. More objectively, the production runs the risk that, over 130 minutes without an interval, what begins as clear simplicity may pale into mere plainness. Given Retallack's reputation, I cannot help but feel I must be missing something... but it may not all be on my side.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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