A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Royal Shakespeare Theatre Stratford, 17 September 2011
The stage was dressed as an industrial unit with a roller door to the rear and a metal staircase with landing on the left. A sofa stood stage left and a café table with two chairs were placed downstage right. An armchair stood upstage right.
The sound of running water could be heard offstage before the start of the performance. During this time, some audience members accidentally wandered onto the main stage to investigate the origin of the sound.
Characters entered in dribs and drabs. Two punky looking women played cards at the café table, while a woman in a fur coat sat alone on the sofa. She stared out disconsolately towards the audience, lost in her own thoughts.
This was very reminiscent of the start of the RSC’s Merchant of Venice in which Scott Handy’s Antonio had done a similar thing in the Las Vegas casino.
We were meant to understand that Pippa Nixon’s Hippolyta was unhappy. Those familiar with recent Merchant could well have expected her first words to have been “In sooth, I know not why I am so sad”.
Smoke started to emerge from a trap door downstage. Alex Hassell’s Demetrius went to investigate, opened the door and wafted the smoke away. Soon a team of repair men, the mechanicals, arrived via the roller door and descended the trap with tools and a length of air duct.
The industrial unit took on the air of a seedy nightclub as besuited doormen shuffled and looked nervous as if expecting the arrival of someone important. Demetrius stood in position and polished a shoe on the back of his trouser leg.
Theseus entered. He wore a suit, but the ponytail and rough accent marked him out as a shifty criminal.
All this detail made it perfectly plain that the production was not going to be another twee, sylvan version of the play. Hippolyta was deliberately portrayed as discontented in order to create an interesting twist.
Theseus complained about the time remaining until the wedding. Hippolyta contradicted him, but was evidently not relishing the prospect of becoming his bride. Theseus talked about wedding her “in another key” and showed her expensive presents including jewellery. She was again unimpressed. He tried to caress her but she spurned him.
Egeus brought in Hermia (Matti Houghton), who was soon joined by Lysander and Demetrius. Helena (Lucy Briggs-Owen) stood on the landing observing events.
Hermia looked a little like Maxine Peake. She had her hair short and wore a combination of heavy boots with a pinafore dress. Helena was the complete opposite with her designer outfits and vague, foppish upper class accent.
Egeus produced the knacks and trifles with which Lysander had allegedly won Hermia away from Demetrius. There was an undercurrent of humour in his paternal officiousness.
Demetrius and Lysander stood downstage facing Theseus and sparred with each other over Hermia.
After confirming the death ultimatum to Hermia, Theseus led the others out. As he passed Hippolyta, he asked her “What cheer my love?” whereupon she spat at him. As Benedick might have said, “This looks not like a nuptial”. As Theseus and his party left, Helena descended the stairs and crossed the stage to exit in pursuit of Demetrius.
Hermia and Lysander planned to run away. The sentiment underlying their conversation here seemed too fey and flighty for the grim urban setting. Hermia, in particular, did not look like the kind of girl to ponder wistfully on the vagaries of love. Her line about the vows that men have broke, sounded too plaintiff for her wiry character. But this was a minor flaw in the mood of the piece that did not spoil the whole.
When Helena complained about Demetrius ignoring her, she came across as dippy, vague and insecure. Her neat white coat and well-groomed appearance meant that she seemed an alien in this louche demi-monde. After they had formed their various plans, the young people exited and someone turned the lights out leaving it in darkness.
At the start of the next scene (1.2) the repair men came out of the trap door into the dark room and set about making arrangements for their play using their torches for lighting. They messed around in the dark, scaring each other, until one of them turned the light switch back on.
Marc Wooton was indisposed that evening and the performance lost nothing from Bottom being played by his understudy, the excellent Felix Hayes, whom I had last seen as a mechanical in the Tobacco Factory’s Dream.
Bottom’s boastful attention-seeking attempt to take on all the parts in the play was fun to watch. He used a piece of air duct to represent the lion’s mane when roaring. Flute protested about playing Thisbe and paused saying “I have a beard… coming”: the hasty correction indicated that his obviously bare chin had made his initial statement untenable.
When Quince handed round the parts, most of the mechanicals got a thin wad of paper, but Bottom got a thick one, emphasising the size of his part. They made much of the “hold, or cut bowstrings” phrase, turning it into the motto of their group.
At the start of act two the set changed to represent the forest. The door rolled up to reveal cut-out trees. The women who had previously hung around the club entered through the hatch hissing like cats. When they tended on Hippolyta, sat in an armchair stage right, it became obvious that they were fairies of the forest.
The fairies responded to Puck (another understudy, Lanre Malaolu) as the multiple voices of one fairy character.
In a crucial sequence, they took off Hippolyta’s coat and dressed her as Titania. This onstage costume change indicated that the characters were linked, indeed one and the same person in different settings. Puck was now holding a broom, which had previously been part of warehouse club set.
Analogous with the Hippolyta/Titania doubling, Oberon was played by the same actor as Theseus. When the king of fairies entered, we could see that he was basically Theseus with his ponytail down and with a more regal sounding voice. However, unlike Hippolyta/Titania, there was no explicit transformation between the characters.
Titania rose to encounter him. Her voice and demeanour were also different, exuding an air of serenity and power.
At this moment the forest sequence began to look like poor, downtrodden Hippolyta’s wish-fulfilment fantasy in which she had become the equal of her husband. We were looking at an alternative world made specially for Hippolyta in which Theseus/Oberon was a familiar feature but not a fellow adventurer. And, of course, fantasies lack real substance and the world is unchanged when they end.
Bold and confident, Pippa Nixon’s portrayal of Titania was one of the best performances I have ever seen. Her delivery of the “forgeries of jealousy” line was particularly striking.
She demonstrated the story of the pregnant Indian woman using one of her fairies, who walked across the stage under a lattice light. A series of fake changelings deceived Oberon, who chased after each in turn finding them to be just bundles of clothes with no child inside.
After Titania and her fairies exited, Oberon instructed Puck to fetch the special flower. Puck put a girdle “round about” the earth using the Q1 version of the phrase.
Demetrius entered pursued by Helena. Oberon drew back next to some fairies who were standing by the cut-out trees in the doorway, waving their arms to look like trees as a form of stylised camouflage.
Helena’s gauche, posh gawkiness began to turn unstable. She got down on all fours like a spaniel to illustrate her devotion to Demetrius. But her beloved merely sat on the back of the sofa, took off a shoe, showed it to her as if playing with a dog and then cast it to one side, gesturing at her to fetch it.
She duly obliged. Helena crawled over to where it had fallen, picked it up in her mouth and brought it back to him. This occurred just in time for Demetrius to tell her “You do impeach your modesty too much”, which in context became a funny line.
Helena ran after Demetrius and as she passed by Oberon, he gestured with his hand and held her motionless, promising her that their roles would be reversed and she would eventually flee from Demetrius.
Puck brought in the flower. Oberon dispatched him to find the Athenian lover and apply the magic juice of the flower in his eyes.
Titania descended on a sofa (2.2) and was attended by fairies. Oberon placed the flower juice in her eyes as she slept. She was then hoisted up into the air.
Lysander and Hermia bedded down for the night having become exhausted. She had brought a sleeping bag and a toothbrush, which she used while giving Lysander the brush-off, telling him to settle further away from her.
Puck thought he had found the right Athenian and put juice in Lysander’s eyes, who helpfully rose up to facilitate the juicing.
Helena’s pursuit of Demetrius through the forest was staged using some stylised slow movements. They each clambered in slow-motion past fairies who acted as obstacles to their smooth progress.
She looked dishevelled with her hair frazzled. Her clothes were torn, tattered and smeared with mud as a result of the obstacles. This was quite a change from her previous tidy and finely dressed appearance.
After a brief exchange of words with Helena, Demetrius ran off and Helena broke down completely in her “ugly as a bear speech”. She sobbed and grizzled and shrieked in a brilliant tableau of a woman completely at the end of her tether. She spied Lysander and woke him in the hope he could be of help.
Helena’s wide-eyed look of complete shock in the face of Lysander’s effusive declarations of love was made funnier by the young man being completely oblivious to her muddied, bruised body and tattered hair. The staging here was perhaps one of the best realisations of the absurdity of this situation I have seen.
Lysander adopted a kind of Mr Loverman flirting with her, which again looked totally out of place. He danced suggestively and sang some of his lines, so that the inherent rhythm and rhyme of the text’s verse became tuneful.
Helena ran off with Lysander pursuing. Hermia woke from her disturbed dream and realised that her beloved had gone.
The mechanicals rehearsed their play (3.1) and Bottom, who had brought along a salami for his lunch, indulged in some incredible overacting. His sonorous voice boomed out as he bestrode the stage. He also indicated the finger gesture that Wall had to make to represent the cranny through which Pyramus and Thisbe were to meet. Flute had his hat pulled down firmly over his head.
Quince encouraged Flute to raise the pitch of his voice when acting as Thisbe. He did not get the point a first until Quince stuffed his top out to make him look female, after which he talked in an excessively high-pitched voice.
Puck’s transformation of Bottom saw him return with a hair piece made to look like ears, as if it were a natural extension of own hair; tin cans on the end of his hands for hooves and a salami swinging from his groin area. This looked brilliant, though possibly not what the teachers in charge of a party of schoolchildren were expecting.
The other mechanicals ran off leaving Bottom to sing. Titania’s sofa bower descended from above. She awoke and fell in love with him. As she knelt before Bottom and felt at his feet/hooves, her gaze descended to his salami on the word “beautiful”.
Her “Out of this wood do not desire to go” was both languorous and commanding. This also hinted at the wish-fulfilment dream quality of the forest sequences. A procession of the fairies led the group off the stage, with the changeling in a low-slung pram, after which came the interval.
The second half began with scene 3.2. Puck reported to Oberon on Titania’s enchantment with Bottom. Demetrius and Hermia appeared on the stage right walkway. She was now also bedraggled and mucky. Hermia railed at Demetrius, suspecting that he had killed Lysander. She stormed off leaving Demetrius to lie down on the sofa.
Oberon’s “What hast thou done?” got a big laugh, possibly because of the extreme understatement of the question in relation to the chaos unleashed.
Puck was sarcastic with his “Look how I go”s but Oberon chased him away so that Puck’s line about being swifter than a Tartar’s bow was said in panic as he ran off.
In an attempt to rectify the situation, Oberon put juice in Demetrius’ eyes, who helpfully sat up on the sofa to facilitate the dosing, then sank back down again. Here, as often in the production, chairs were flown in and suspended just above those being enchanted.
Helena tried to rebuff the pursuing Lysander but she fell back over the sofa onto Demetrius waking him up and causing him to fall in love with her.
An instant rivalry emerged between Demetrius and Lysander, who alternated between expressing devotion to Helena and mildly slapping each other. Demetrius adopted a kung fu posture when saying “lest to thy peril thou aby it dear” just before Hermia entered on stage right walkway.
Helena began to look even more saucer-eyed in amazement at what she now thought was a three-person conspiracy. Her unkempt appearance was now accentuated by foot dragging due to a broken heel. Helena began to argue with Hermia and during this time the men variously nodded in agreement with everything bad that Helena said about Hermia and otherwise doted on her.
At one point both just lounged around and looked in adoration at their beloved, each with a hand on their cheek, creating a simple but very pleasing image of their supernaturally induced affections. At another, their rivalry erupted into a pillow fight.
Hermia clung to Lysander’s leg as he tried to walk off the stage left walkway. She then railed against Helena who retaliated by calling Hermia a puppet. The enraged Hermia flew at Helena as the others tried to restrain her, eventually pinning her still struggling body down on the sofa.
Demetrius punched the air in triumph when Helena said that she still had “a foolish heart” for him. The chaos ended with Helena running off on her long legs.
Oberon instructed Puck to lead the men astray and make them tired so that they would sleep. Chairs descended to create a forest of furniture through which lovers wended their way.
Puck arranged that each of the lovers collapsed and slept on a chair downstage. The other chairs were then cleared out of the way. The four chairs on which the lovers were slouched rose up. They clung to them until they stood upright, after which the chairs continued to rise beyond their reach. With the chairs gone, the young men and women collapsed into their respective couples, falling back to the ground in a neat cuddle puddle. Puck finished the job by juicing Lysander properly.
The armchair bower was flown in (4.1) so that Titania and Bottom could make themselves comfy and fall asleep. Oberon reversed the spell on her, while Puck simply removed the hair piece from Bottom’s head.
There followed what the production called the Transformation Dance. Oberon and Titania celebrated their reconciliation with a close dance in which they gradually dressed themselves and each other as Theseus and Hippolyta.
A striking component of this dance was a series of movements in which Titania bent over touching one foot with her hands, extending the other leg into the air. This allowed Oberon to place a shoe on each of her feet in turn. Their clothes were taken from the nearby sofa.
At this point it was not clear whether the end of the dream would just deposit Hippolyta back into her original world, making the dream a brief but happy escape from reality. But the reconciliation endured and the transformation affected both her and Theseus, implying that all of this had been much more than just a dream inside her head. The real world beyond the fantasy had been affected.
With the transformation complete they stood on stage as Theseus and Hippolyta. All the incongruous references to hounds were cut. The lovers woke up, and Demetrius stuttered slightly when trying to explain the night’s events.
Given the continuation of the dream’s effect in the waking world, Demetrius’ question as to whether the lovers were still dreaming seemed very pertinent.
Bottom awoke and brought out the bawdy overtones of his speech describing “what I had”. Before settling on Bottom’s Dream as the title for the ballad about his adventures, he also suggested Donkey Bonky and Ass Matic, the first of which would have been an excellent alternative title for the play.
A brief scene followed (4.2) saw Bottom reunited with his fellow mechanicals. They went off to prepare play. When Flute said that a paramour was a thing of naught, he gestured with his hands, lewdly indicating an O shape.
The beginning of act five saw another interesting moment illuminating the relationship between the play’s dream world and its real world. Hippolyta said how strange the lovers’ account of their night in the forest sounded. Theseus dismissed it as madness.
Hippolyta, however, tellingly gave more credence to the reality of what they had related. Her speech was perfectly fitted to someone who had somehow shared in the dream, seen its reality and wanted to hint at the fact that it had some substance:
But all the story of the night told over,
And all their minds transfigured so together,
More witnesseth than fancy’s images,
And grows to something of great constancy;
But howsoever, strange and admirable.
Pippa Nixon spoke this speech as if her character possessed more knowledge than she was letting on, enhancing the feeling that Hippolyta had indeed experienced the world of Titania.
The actor playing Puck reappeared as Philostrate and read out the list of entertainments through a mic with Theseus replying to the suggestions.
The couples took up positions: Demetrius and Hermia lay on the stage right walkway, Theseus and Hippolyta likewise at the bottom of the centre stage steps, while Helena and Lysander rested on the stage left walkway.
The mechanicals’ stage was brought in through the roller door. It consisted of a narrow platform with a rudimentary curtain pulled across it. All their props and stage equipment had been improvised from work materials.
Snug blew on a primitive trumpet interrupting Quince’s prologue. Quince got annoyed and slapped him with the papers of his prepared speech scattering them on ground. In his panic he tried to remember the speech and this was the origin of the errors in his badly punctuated recitation.
As Quince introduced the characters, the actors trotted up and down and rotated in a circle so that we could see each of them in turn.
Pyramus wore armour made out of dustbin lids. Thisbe sported a wig and the bare framework of a dress. Man in the moon had a torch, a twig and a dog whose body was the extendable scissor arm of a shaving mirror on wheels. Lion’s mane consisted of wallpaper paste brushes arranged in a circle around his head. Wall dressed in grey with no actual wall-like features.
In the prologue, Pyramus and Thisbe each used a dagger to stab themselves in turn, but inadvertently hit Wall, who was standing behind them, in the stomach.
Wall came forward and extended his hands in front him making a scissor shape with his fingers to represent the two ends of the cranny through the masonry. Pyramus did some excellent sonorous overacting. He and Thisbe tried to get close to each other, but Wall fought to separate them by moving his hands, and by extension the wall surfaces, until they were far apart.
The couple eventually overcame this obstacle and kissed each other. The male mechanical actors reacted in shock at what they had done, but despite this were later revealed behind the curtain kissing each other enthusiastically.
Lion’s footsteps were marked by clip-clop noises. He played along with this by tapping his feet in a rhythm, so that the coconuts played a tune. Moonshine had problems getting his dog to behave and sit up straight, causing him to adjust it manually. He became frustrated at the comments from wedding party.
Pyramus overacted gloriously and died. After her multiple adieus, Thisbe collapsed dead with her face on Pyramus’ groin. The Bergomask dance involved two mechanicals Quo dancing with loud music, which fused the lights. This obliged them to go down the hatch in order to solve the problem, which got them neatly off stage to make room for Oberon and Puck’s finale to the play.
The enchantment of the house saw the theatre galleries lit with UV lights to match the stage lighting. The uniform illumination of stage and auditorium really made the theatre feel like one building, one of the key ambitions of the RST’s new thrust stage configuration. Confetti was thrown down from the upper galleries to create a magic atmosphere.
Puck’s concluding speech was very well spoken and paced and produced big rounds of applause.
It is good to see bold experiments work, and this particular take on the play worked very well.
Making the forest sequence a dream experienced by Hippolyta, but one which transformed her and the surrounding world, made for a very satisfying result.
The great thing about this production was that just where you thought the play would break by being wrenched into a new shape, the text would in places surprisingly accommodate the precise reading that was being mapped onto it.
I had wanted to see the production again in Stratford, but it had more or less sold out. So I’m now pinning my hopes on a London transfer. The staging did not involve too much complication and trickery, which means it could work well at the Roundhouse.