The third instalment in the RSC’s Comedies season, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, opened last night at the Novello. Shakespeare’s much-loved tale of fairies cavorting in the woods, love spells and mix-ups is particularly appropriate for the week before St Valentine’s Day and shows that the bard was just a silly old romantic at heart. Caroline Bishop went to the first night.
Gregory Doran’s production is a visual treat. From the moment it opens with Theseus, Duke of Athens and Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons, play-duelling in lavish gladiator costumes, it is certain that this is to be a stylish show. Designer Stephen Brimson Lewis and Lighting Designer Tim Mitchell have created an Athens of contrast. While the Duke’s residence is minimalist, with a plain wall and a mirrored floor, the forest, home to the fairies and setting for all magical goings-on, is a feast of detail, the atmosphere of the place conveyed through ethereal lighting and a background of forest noises. A beautiful moon hangs over both worlds, changing its coloured glow according to the mood.
The fairies that occupy the magical woods are Narnia-esque in appearance, none more so than the King and Queen of the Fairies, Oberon and Titania. Joe Dixon cuts a fine figure as the imposing Oberon, while Titania is played as a sexy nymph by Amanda Harris, whose hair is a creation in itself.
Into the fairies’ lair come a quartet of humans – first the girlie Hermia (Sinéad Keenan) and her beau Lysander (Trystan Gravelle), who are planning to elope that night. They are pursued by Demetrius (Oscar Pearce) who is in love with Hermia, who is in turn pursued by the less girlie and sadly desperate – what self-respecting girl would declare herself to be a man’s ‘spaniel’? – Helena (Caitlin Mottram), who loves Demetrius.
Also present in the woods that night are a group of players, led by Peter Quince (Paul Chahidi) and including Bottom (Malcolm Storry) – who has obviously arrived in Athens direct from Birmingham – preparing a play to celebrate the Duke’s wedding to Hippolyta.
The fairies have all sorts of fun with the humans, splashing love potions about with wild abandon so that everyone ends up desperately in love with the wrong person, including Titania, who, thanks to Oberon and the befuddled Puck (Jonathan Slinger, fetching in a grubby vest, spiky red hair and a rounded belly), falls in love with Bottom, who has been bewitched and sports an ass’s head.
Doran exploits Shakespeare’s innuendo to the hilt, and has the audience in stitches when the players perform their show at the end. The attempts by Lysander and Demetrius to secure Helena’s affections, as both have been bewitched to fall in love with her, is played for laughs, as is the classic schoolgirl catfight, including hair-pulling, between plain Helena and pretty Hermia . However, the comedy is off-set by some clever dramatic devices, such as Titania’s spooky puppet-son, and the use of mirrors, screens and ‘fairy dust’ to convey the magic of the potions.
This production is luscious in its portrayal of a fairy land exerting surreptitious influence over the human world. For anyone who once believed in the tooth fairy, this one’s for you.
A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream is playing until 25 February.