It seems like a lifetime ago that Sheridan Smith and David Walliams were announced to star in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the penultimate production in Michael Grandage’s star-studded season of five plays, but now Walliams’ Bottom has become a reality, endowing the Bard’s tale with the trademark campness and comic vigour for which the comedian is so well known.
Like many productions of Shakespeare’s timeless comedy, Grandage’s take on the comic play about magic and romance offers a less traditional take on the world of woodland fairies, presenting Oberon and Titania’s kingdom as home to a band of pot-puffing hippies, with Smith and her magical clan sporting bouffant hair dos straight out of a production of Hair.
The setting is beautifully evoked by designer Christopher Oram, whose initial backdrop of translucent panels during the opening scene’s fraught discussions of marriage is soon lifted to reveal a woodland clearing lit by a vast bright moon and surrounded by illuminated images of trees that give the illusion of light emerging through their leafy boughs.
Grandage throws a great deal of pace at the production, racing through the Bard’s lengthy text in just over two hours, a feat that is aided by melancholic music by Simon And Garfunkel, The Carpenters and The Mamas And The Papas, along with the cast’s efficient delivery of lines.
Walliams employs much of the humour seen in his popular sketch shows in his role as Bottom. Intent on stealing the show – as well as the show within a show – the Britain’s Got Talent judge adopts voices from his Little Britain repertoire to prove he is capable of performing every role in Peter Quince’s play, looking his fellow labourers-turned-performers up and down in a manner you would expect from bitchy government aide Sebastian Love in the hit BBC television series.
Despite Walliams’ best efforts at making an ass of himself and Smith’s smooth and sexy performance as Titania, it is the quartet of lovers caught up in the fairies’ meddling who provide some of the production’s most powerful performances. The quarrelling between Sam Swainsbury’s passionate Lysander and Stefano Braschi’s half-naked Demetrius provokes squeals of laughter, with Katherine Kingsley’s hysterically obsessed Helena taking a comically dramatic turn when she is faced with the love of both sparring opponents. Along with Susannah Fielding’s stubborn and determined Hermia, the trio are the most natural Shakespearean speakers, the verse tripping off their tongues as easily as Walliams slinks across the stage in his camp, arm-flapping swagger.
With Shakespeare’s Bottom in Walliams’ hands, A Midsummer Night’s Dream has never been so crude, but given the comedian’s widespread popularity there is no doubt that his appendage-implying turn as the Dreamy ass will have audiences at the Noël Coward theatre losing their heads with laughter for months to come.