It is rare that you see one of your favourite plays in a completely new light – in this instance, I wish I hadn’t. There’s a fashion for reinventing Shakespeare at the moment – single gendered casts, reversed roles, modern rap versions, the list goes on – however sometimes enough is enough, a play has been played as a comedy (as intended) for over 500 years, surely there is no need to entirely remove the joy, humour and frivolity from a text.
A giant mirror flanks the back wall and the lights come up on a quagmire of mud in place of a stage, barren and desolate, a ‘green plot’ this is not. There is no pleasant arbour, mystical forest, ethereal spirits or stately court. Just mud. And lots of it. By the end of the play, I applauded the stamina and resolve of the cast who don’t step off the stage for the full 2 hours and begin to look how I felt at the end of Glastonbury. They fling themselves around the stage, running, crawling, leaping, rolling and belly flopping until the only laughs from the audience are from sheer physical comedy rather than the art or expertise of Shakespeare’s text.
There is some validity to Joe Hill Gibbins’ interpretation of the play (but these don’t produce the laughs). Not solely in this Shakespeare do we have a problematic series of weddings, where some mysterious force deems that there will be a happily ever after, irrespective of the problematic relationship to that point. There are sordid undertones (not least implied by the mud) and sinister insinuations of rape which are not unfounded when you really interrogate the text and peel back layers of misogyny and manipulation.
The explicit doubling which sees the characters change on stage with the audience forced to view their faces through the reflection of the large stage mirror plays to an accepted interpretation for Theseus and Oberon and Hippolyta and Titania. However the inclusion of Egeus and Puck was interesting. Not to my taste to see Puck as a despondent, disillusioned subordinate who ambles around the stage to put the plot in motion, but fitting with the overall production. There’s little magic or light-footedness about it, but then again, there is the growing bog to contend with.
The court are dressed in black – starting dark and end darker – while around them chaos reigns. The remainder of the cast start pristinely clothed and are practically unrecognisable by the end. A sponsorship credit to the likes of Persil wouldn’t have gone amiss. Equally to Maria McKee whose track ‘Show me heaven’ is sung by Bottom – it elicited some laughs but felt as if they were making a mockery of the original play.
In the ever-growing darkness, there are some glimmers of light. The mechanicals, from whom much of the real humour (away from where the magic usually happens) have an extremely cut down role, so much so that I questioned whether they would even perform their play at the end, and if they too had been left to watch this ordeal with little to look forward to. Aaron Hefferman provides, for me, the only moment of real humour as Flute playing Thisbe, and unfortunately this is all too fleeting.
Less a dream than a nightmare, more hate than love, a raging February evening left me dreaming of Midsummer.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Young Vic until 1st April 2017. Running time 2 hours 10 minutes without an interval. Images by Keith Pattison. For more information and tickets please visit the website.