6/2/09, RSC, Novello.
(Written by Penelope)
"The course of true love never did run smooth" Lysander tells Hermia right at the start of A Midsummer Night's Dreamy. And so it proves for every character in the play. With jealous fathers and lovers, mischievous fairies and magic spells which go awry, it does look like love will go wrong for everyone. This is a clever, genuinely funny production where the themes are love, identity, illusion and nature. Directed by Gregory Doran, it has pace, humour and moments of surprise and stark emotion.
The RSC is renowned for its ensemble work and this play demonstrates how effective that can be. All the actors are accomplished, are generous to each other and spark off one another. However, there are some performances which stand out - Peter de Jersey as the grumpy, controlling king of the fairies, Oberon, is wonderful and authoritative. Joe Dixon as Bottom gives a fabulous comic performance full of confusion and slapstick. Edward Bennett as Demetrius has noticeably grown in confidence and presence since standing in for David Tennant in the recent Hamlet (few actors have his clarity of speech and ability to project).
But Natalie Walter as Helena steals several scenes with her sad yearning for Demetrius and then her comic timing when Lysander pursues her in the wood; she is both knowing and innocent and it's a lovely portrayal.
The sets, costumes and fabulous lighting combine to show the contrast between the scenes in the wood, controlled by the fairies and the more stark, city scenes. The difference between the dreamworld and reality - at the heart of the play - is superbly enhanced by them. The choreography of the fairies where they move, slightly eerily together, being at the same time visible to the audience, but invisible to the players, works remarkably well. The ass's head worn by Bottom, with its expressive, floppy ears is wonderful. And there is some creepily effective puppetry.
The plot is complicated - there are three simultaneous stories and a lot of hilarity - but this production allows you to follow all three and they hold your interest equally. For me, the bawdy humour in the play scene after the three weddings was a bit laboured and relentless. But judging by the laughs around me, I was in a minority.
The cast managed the delicate balancing act between Shakespeare's jokes and the moments of serious emotion and tragedy well. It's enormously moving and shocking when Hermia (Kathryn Drysdale) says of Lysander (Tom Davey), after Puck's spell has made him fall out of love with her, "What, can you do me greater harm than hate? Hate me! Wherefore!".
When all the spells are broken and the chaos is over, we are left with the perverse logic of the trickster, Puck. His message is that while his shadows and enchantments may have offended, everything is now fixed so we can all be friends. It's a huge and hopeful contrast to many of Shakespeare's other plays and one which leaves the audience smiling and nodding in agreement.