A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM

★★★★★

_REVIEW.   it’s about _THEATRE.   words _KYLE PEDLEY.
  at _RSC.   tickets _OFFICIAL SITE.   booking until _30th MAR.

February 14, 2024

images © Pamela Raith @ RSC.

Dreamscapes and the fae are commonplace, almost the point of mundanity, within Shakespeare. Be it the servile Ariel and fellow island spirits of The Tempest, the foreboding misdirection of dreams in Romeo and Juliet, or the outward supernatural malevolence of Macbeth’s witchery, the Bard’s offerings are replete with the fantastical and otherworldly.

Yet nowhere are they more intertwined with the whinnying of character and narrative than A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

This celebrated fool’s playground of mistaken identities, unrequited loves and fairytale mischief is the latest offering from the RSC, in a boisterous and kinetic production steered by Eleanor Rhode (a RSC returnee, after her 2019 production of the rarely-seen King John).

Given the whimsy and heightened nature of Dream’s fable, coursing through realms and concepts of high fantasy that even Tolkien and Carroll would likely balk at, anything resembling the words ‘stripped back’ as an approach might (understandably) alarm even non-purists.

And yes, to strictly label Rhode and designer Lucy Osborne’s take on the great romp as such would be unfair. For whilst this Dream may not be bursting at the seams with intrusive set decoration or any overt on-stage busyness, it still commands attention and offers up a colourful, inventive style all of its own. From its overhanging canvas of rose-like paper lanterns, its glitching, flickering projections of analog transmissions (complete with flashes of the iconic ‘Test Card F’), its not-quite-Eighties-but-the-shoulder-pads-are-close-enough costume design, through to at one point literally dropping a technicolor ball pit onto its company member’s heads, there’s a tangible retro vibrancy to where (and when) Rhodes pitches her ‘Athens’.

“…this is a handsome, whimsical and transportive Dream, for certain.”

It’s a distinctive and interesting approach, and for a brief moment, one that almost makes the slightly more traditional depictions of Dream’s fairy folk that follow feel a little more de rigeuer, perhaps even staid, as a consequence. Fortunately, Osborne’s spunky costume design carries through (with Bally Gill’s decadently punk Oberon making a vivid, immediate impact), and some splendid illusory and lighting work from John Bulleid and Matt Daw keeping things suitably ethereal. Levitating floral macguffins, micro poi balls dancing about as enchanted fairy folk, a cascade of neon pink petals to consummate a consummation, and even a pair of animatronic donkey ears offering up perfectly timed comedic droops – this is a handsome, whimsical and transportive Dream, for certain. One that fuses technology and theatricality, whilst shrewdly managing to avoid overreaching or stuffing itself silly on needless, excessive spectacle.

As the impending marriage of a nervy duke (Bally Gill, again) to his unenthused betrothed (Sirine Saba, also on multi-role duty) approaches, four young wannabe lovers flee into neighbouring woodlands to pursue their heart’s desires. Feisty Hermia (Dawn Sievewright) longs to abscond with the object of her affections, young Lysander (Ryan Hutton). The only catch is, she’s already been promised to strapping Demetrius (Nicholas Armfield), who himself commands the affections of envious Helena (Boadicea Ricketts).

Elsewhere, a performing troupe are making ready to perform for the Duke at his wedding, led by self-assured Bottom (Mathew Baynton) who is beyond confident that he can deliver a performance for the ages.

“Measure for measure, pound for pound, this is the sharpest, funniest RSC production in recent memory.”

As its colourful cast of characters intrude upon the realms of the fantastical by venturing into the glen, they fall foul of mischievous sprites and scorned fairy folk, leading to farce, silliness, switched desires and oscillating loyalties par excellence.

Measure for measure, pound for pound, this is the sharpest, funniest RSC production in recent memory. Rhode’s taut direction keeps things punchy and regularly injects invention and flourish. See a forest of ladders in Act II which the cast clamber up, thrust upon and slide down amidst a hilariously charged four-way verbal fracas. Bask in the gloriously melodramatic, ludicrous and even occasionally bawdy spot of late game metafiction.

It’s charged, kinetic and utterly entertaining stuff. Buoyed immeasurably by Rhode clearly letting the instincts and talents of a wonderful assembled company not only breathe, but run rampant.

Boadicea Ricketts’ brash, frustrated Helena crackles with some deliciously contemporary sensibilities and ticks, her gradual descent into exasperation and neurosis sublimely pitched. She’s handsomely met by Dawn Sievewright and Nicholas Armfield, both excellent and characterful as Hermia and Demetrius, respectively. But it’s perhaps a side-splitting, animated Ryan Hutton, a leaping bundle of comic and physical elasticity as Lysander, who gets amongst the most consistent and effortless laughs of the evening.

Not that he’s without stiff competition, mind. This is a uniformly fantastic company, with even smaller roles such as Emily Cundick’s Snout, Helen Monks’ fraught troupe leader Peter/Rita Quince, and Mitesh Soni’s Flute all amongst those getting laugh-out-loud moments to shine, particularly come the show’s closing scenes.

Bally Gill starts out strong and sets the tone from the off with his quirky, giggle-inducing Theseus, and if Sirine Saba is initially given little to work with as Hippolyta, she positively springs to life by the time she’s slinking, strutting and even boogying her way through the woods as Queen of Fairies, Titania. Credit must go, too, to an impressive Premi Tamang, stepping in to cover the role of Puck and giving a lively, winning turn (on press night no less).

Which brings us to Bottom. In what turns out to be an unsurprisingly inspired spot of casting, Ghosts and Horrible HistoriesMathew Baynton is perfect as a heightened, grandstanding iteration of one of Shakespeare’s silliest creations. Where past productions may pitch their Bottom as courageous or fearlessly assertive, here he is hilariously self-important and pompous. And whether dialling up the melodrama and absurdity of his luvvies’ performative chops to the stratosphere, or sinking into the jackassery (quite literally) and physical lampoonery of the character post-transformation (just you wait for those ears and gnashers…) or even just daintily prancing about on stage in skimpy attire, Baynton serves up an absolute comedic masterclass in the role throughout, lighting up the stage with every inch of his spindly, wide-eyed, hyper expressive and giddily farcical turn.

“…Baynton serves up an absolute comedic masterclass…”

There will doubtless have been – and likely continue to be – visits to the whimsical farscapes of A Midsummer Night’s Dream that carry even more showy spectacle and grandeur than this latest outing from the RSC. It is after all, by some measure, Shakespeare’s most heightened and outlandish hour, and for some that means big production value and stage wizardry dialled up to the nines.

And still, as pretty, colourful and occasionally otherwordly as Bulleid and Daw’s work confidently keep things here, no amount of aesthetic distraction or set pieces can compensate for the true magic of the Bard’s high fantasy hijinks. It’s a code that Rhode and company seem to have quite effortlessly cracked; a frisson they have plucked, bottled and ebbed into every beat and pulse of this giddy, winning and, yes, magical production.

Tirelessly funny, effortlessly vibrant in performance and character both, and a razor-sharp, immaculately performed evening of comedy and jollification, here is a Dream of a show that deserves adoration from top to scantily-clad Bottom.

A rare vision, indeed.

Perfectly cast, with a shrewdly balanced blend of visual delights and performative thrills, Rhode’s ‘Dream’ is one we don’t wish to wake from anytime soon. Baynton’s Bottom proves one for the ages. A rare vision, indeed.

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