You know it’s officially summer when A Midsummer Night’s Dream comes to town. Like A Christmas Carol in December, it seems like every year brings us at least one new production of Shakespeare’s comedy, and it’s easy to give in to Dream fatigue and assume the play can’t possibly have anything original left to say.
The Faction have taken this on board with their stripped back production, and director Mark Leipacher keeps things simple so that the focus returns to the original text without the distraction of elaborate new interpretations. By having so little in the way of set or costumes – all the characters wear modern everyday clothes, and the only nod to the Athenian setting is the orb of the moon which hangs above the stage – we’re able to see the story through fresh eyes and draw new conclusions as to what it’s all about. Personally, I picked up on several themes and textual elements that I’d never considered before in 20 years of seeing A Midsummer Night’s Dream performed; it’s both refreshing and exciting to see such a well-worn classic through fresh eyes.
Having said all that, ironically you do need to know the play reasonably well to keep up with the complex and fast-moving plot – particularly as the multi-roling cast can change character in the blink of an eye, without any change of costume and often without even leaving the stage. For the most part the versatility of the actors means this works well, but there are some moments where scenes blur together and it takes a while to unpick who’s now playing who. (On the plus side, doubling up the roles does mean that the Mechanicals get to conclude the show and perform their gloriously terrible Pyramus and Thisbe uninterrupted by the mocking taunts of the newly-weds.)
Given the treatment of women in the play (and – let’s be honest – most of Shakespeare’s plays), it’s good to quickly see some strong female leads emerge. Tamarin McGinley doubles as Hippolyta, who might be marrying Theseus (Herb Cuanalo) against her will but has no intention of entering the union meekly, and Titania, who refuses to give up her page to Oberon despite all his threats. Meanwhile Lowri Izzard’s Hermia risks everything to avoid her own arranged marriage, and fiercely defends her virtue even against the man she’s just eloped with, insisting that Lysander (Jeremy Ang Jones) sleep further away from her despite his best efforts to convince her otherwise.
In many ways this is a play of two halves; while Act 1 sets the scene and explores some of the story’s darker themes, Act 2 is pretty much wall-to-wall laughs, with Laura Evelyn’s bewildered Helena, Christopher Hughes’ hilariously over-the-top Bottom and Christopher York’s self-conscious Snout (a.k.a. The Wall) stealing the show. The whole cast display great physicality throughout – the lovers’ fight is a particular highlight, as is the moment Linda Marlowe’s Puck enters on Bottom’s back, her hands raised to create his donkey ears.
If ever we needed proof that Shakespeare can still be relevant to a 21st century audience, we have it in this production. It’s got royal weddings, climate change and honour killings, gender roles, body image and the question of consent, all wrapped up in a joyously entertaining evening with great physical comedy and strong performances from a talented ensemble. It takes some doing to breathe new life into such a well-known text, but The Faction have pulled it off. Dream fatigue – what’s that?
A Midsummer Night’s Dream concludes its run at Wilton’s Music Hall on 30th June. Visit The Faction’s website for details of future productions.