Some actors are simply asinine in playing Shakespeare’s great comic character, Bottom. And then there’s Freddie Fox, who draws on a proverbial menagerie to create a career-defining performance as an ass. If he never achieves greatness he will always be remembered for his Bottom.
Simon Evans promised that his production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which opened last night at London’s Southwark Playhouse, would be original and anarchic.
And here is a dream of a production, pared down to almost nothing and yet delivering a thrilling, funny and entertaining romp through one of Will’s greatest comedy romances.
Evans uses a simple framing device of a play within a play, revealed as we watch the cast arrive in the performance space.
It’s soon clear that the theatre company can only afford seven actors, including its slightly arrogant, diva-like star, called Freddie Fox (who is late), to put on the Dream, a play which has 17 parts.
So something’s got to go and it’s soon revealed to be scenes, characters, set, costumes, sound and lighting.
“We’ve cut that bit,” declares “director” Ludovic Hughes as the young cast struggle to comprehend just how they’re going to pull this off.
It’s going to be impossible to comprehensively review the show without writing plot spoilers. Suffice to say that purists may not approve and those deciding to sit in the front row of this traverse staging (you have been warned) may wish they hadn’t. But I found it deliciously offbeat and inventive.
At just 110-minutes the producers, GoPeople and Glass Half Full, have also done away with an interval but you’ll never notice because you’ll be having too much fun watching the exhaustive antics of Fox, Hughes, Lucy Eaton, Melanie Fullbrook, Maddy Hill, Freddie Hutchins and Suzie Preece.
The mechanicals assemble. They’re all waiting for Mr Fox to arrive and, when he does, it’s clear that there’s only one role for him – the attention-seeking Bottom who considers himself so talented that he could play all the roles without breaking into a sweat.
But, the company being short on members, Fox must also double as young lover Demetrius, frequently tearing off back stage to reappear seconds later as Bottom. Inevitably the doubling up of characters causes mayhem.
Hughes plays both the (unusually understanding) king, Theseus, and a short-tempered bull of a fairy lord, Oberon and you couldn’t get a more different pairing of light and shade.
Theseus is sympathetic to the plight of lovers Hermia and Lysander (Preece and Hutchins) while his Oberon is lip-curling, feral, sweating, jealous and raging, prowling around the stage like a demon rather than king of the faeries.
Furious at his Titania (a fiercely muscular and independent faery queen played by Maddy Hill) he orders Puck (Fullbook who also acts as an on-stage assistant director) to enchant her to fall in love with the first creature she meets.
For this Mr Fox must transform from a cocky actor into an ass and his metamorphosis is astonishing. Borrowing from a Hammer Horror werewolf, Fox strains and gasps, contorts and thrashes about, before emerging as an unadorned donkey – with a rather rampant libido – a coathanger for ears and a rasping, slurping voice borrowed from John Hurt’s Elephant Man.
He brays and staggers about the stage, trying to keep his, er.. libido..in check whenever the amorous Titania makes a lunge for him. He has one of the funniest Bottoms I’ve seen.
The other Freddie, demoted to his middle name of Will for the play so as not to conflict with the top billing, is a hoot, playing the sympathy card throughout, pouting and posturing when his namesake takes the glory. He makes a compelling Lysander and a hilarious mechanical, landed with a woman’s role, who vows revenge on Fox.
When actors don’t know how to overcome a problem, mid-speech, they haul an unwitting member of the front row up to be inducted into the heady world of theatre (fee to be negotiated).
Occasionally Hughes runs on and tells everyone to use their imagination to create a scene or prop. We all had to conjure up a colossal oak tree in the middle of the theatre. It’s was so realistic that I told my neighbour I could see a squirrel in the top branches and she immediately looked up for it.
We picture rain thundering down, the unearthly world bringing a winter’s tale to the height of midsummer, and a canopy of fireflies providing a magical finale to this very special, occasionally anarchic, most certainly original production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream plays at the Southwark Playhouse until July 1.
A Midsummer Night's Dream
“We’ve cut that bit.” Seven actors and an audience use their imagination to create a funny & irreverent production of Shakespeare’s magical A Midsummer Night’s Dream.