Everyone’s a critic and none more so than the characters in Wildcard’s jovial interpretation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream which opened last night at the Jack Studio Theatre in Brockley, South London.
In this the anniversary year of Shakespeare’s death pretty much every theatre company has a production on or planned and the pressure to come up with something fresh and original is intense. After 400 years there’s only so much you can do to The Dream or anything else.
This production sees gender swapping with Oberon/Theseus played by Abi McLoughlin and Harriet Ruffer as the Mechanicals’ director, Peter Quince.
Director James Meteyard ramps up the comedy as the bewitched young lovers, Demetrius, Lysander, Helena and Hermia squabble and bitch slap each other in a bid to sort out their tangled love-lives.
He also makes a point, in this 90-minute production, of highlighting Shakespeare’s in-jokes about the headaches of being a theatre director, something The Bard no doubt struggled with during his career (every actor thinks he knows best – and they usually don’t).
The Mechanicals, a group of am-dram players, question the decisions of their director, Quince, who is left tearing her hair out, and the entire royal court noisily pass judgement on their skit while it’s in progress.
But these multi-talented Mechanicals not only perform a play within the play for the nobles, Theseus, the Duke of Athens, and his intended, Hippolyta, that’s replete with cheeky double entendres, but they also provide the music throughout the production.
The modern-dress production opens with Jack J Fairley’s Bottom, dressed in a Slipknot T-shirt, giving us a snatch of mane-tossing thrash metal with Jethro Tull flute on the side, and ends with a ditty called I Love Ya Donkey Head that has everyone dancing and tapping their feet.
Fairley’s ‘translation’ as an ass is surprisingly subdued. There’s not an heehaw to be heard, and little characterisation, but it’s a refreshing move after four centuries of overacting from other lofty and bargain basement Bottoms.
The Dream is set in Athens, a patriarchal land where women are enslaved, owned by their fathers, husbands and kings. Failure to do their bidding results in death or incarceration in a nunnery for its women.
So having the gender-swaps cocks-a-snook at its regimen and also endorses how very easily women can slip into traditionally male roles. McLoughlin makes a super duke, showing a temperament influenced by his feminine side that gives him an ability to punish tempered by common sense and benevolence.
Theseus is asked by the angry Egeus (Ben Lydon who also excels in playing a wall – in a Pink Floyd The Wall T-shirt) to use his influence to force his daughter Hermia to marry his choice of suitor, the rather dull Demetrius (Peter Dewhurst, a vision in beige, right down to his loafers and jumper tied casually about the neck).
But, as we all know, true love wins out after a few magic potions, a song by a wandering minstrel and a midsummer’s night under a leafy, fairy-lit, bower.
The play’s sprite, Puck (a topless, tousle-headed James Mear in tight leather trousers and body glitter), turns out to be magic at music, serenading the audience with tunes especially composed by Maimuna Memon.
It would have been good to see more of his performance but most of it takes place on a darkened stage. I know that it’s night-time and all that but a bit of spot lighting wouldn’t go amiss.
Our lovers’ foursome of Dewhurst, Joshua Leese as Lysander (who looks like he’s just hot-footed it from the nearest art college), Molly Moody as a fearsome Helena and Natasha Killam as Hermia are more comic than romantic.
Even Rhiannon Sommers’ excellent turn as Titania/ Hippolyta eschews traditional romance to give us a more independent, free-thinking and spirited woman.
This is an entertaining, spirited and enchanting Dream that features flourishes of originality (I especially liked the rather creepy fellow sprites in their white masks) plus the music is a real bonus.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream plays at the Jack Studio Theatre until July 23.
- A Midsummer Night's Dream
An entertaining, spirited, enchanting and gender-swapping Dream from the Wildcard Theatre Company at the Brockley Jack.