Review: A Midsummer Night’s Dream at Wilton’s Music Hall

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.

Photo credit: The Other Richard

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.

Photo credit: The Other Richard

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.

Interview: Henry Maynard, Flabbergast Theatre

“I’d like our audiences to walk away with aching sides and a slightly bemused expression, secure in the knowledge that they had a jolly good time, even if they weren’t always convinced that they had a hold on what was happening…”

Henry Maynard is a former War Horse puppeteer, Amused Moose Laugh Off finalist and founder of Flabbergast Theatre, who are bringing two of their favourite shows to Wilton’s Music Hall in London next month. One sees the return of Balkan bad boys and stars of the Edinburgh fringe, Boris and Sergey; the other is a solo show about one man’s quest for a friend, performed by Henry himself.

Photo credit: Richard Grubby

“Tatterdemalion is an hilarious one-man, silent-ish, physical comedy with silliness in abundance, to a backdrop of Victoriana and otherworldliness with a dash of pathos,” he summarises. “And Boris & Sergey’s Astonishing Freakatorium is the Balkan bad boys of puppetry’s homage to the travelling freak shows of the 1930s, featuring escapology, wild animals and a live séance… Hilarity will ensue.”

All Flabbergast’s shows are the result of an ongoing development process in which both company members and audience play a vital role. “We work with a highly collaborative devising process,” explains Henry. “I come up with the stuff… they do it.

“I’m being facetious. Normally we get in a room with our ideas and keep what makes us laugh. Then we bring it all together in a mostly coherent way.

“All our shows develop in front of the audience; the things that work stay in and the things that don’t we keep flogging away at until eventually we realise we’d be better doing something else. I like the organic way our shows grow.”

Unsurprisingly, this means that audience interaction is an important part of Flabbergast’s productions. “All live theatre relies on participation, the shame is that audiences are often unaware of it,” says Henry. “I blame Stanislavski and his cursed ‘fourth wall’. He was like an earlier version of Trump – ‘I’m gonna build a wall and the performers will pay for it!’

“If you come to a Flabbergast show you are involved and that’s what is great about live theatre – otherwise you might as well stay at home and watch Gogglebox.”

Henry founded Flabbergast back in 2010 to make uncompromising and exciting physical theatre. “I was inspired to set up Flabbergast by Puppetry, Clown, Commedia dell’arte and all the other avant-garde theatre styles that make no money… anywhere… ever,” he explains. “I wanted to perform, learn, direct and teach them. As a company, we aim to make theatre that is sweaty and engaging, physical and alive, and we want to promote puppetry and clown specifically as valid and important art forms in theatre.”

Currently, the company’s focus is on Bunraku puppetry, and particularly on how this can be used to reach an adult audience. “Bunraku is like distilled humanity,” says Henry. “We can sometimes become hardened to real adult people, callous and uncaring – but puppets get through to us like children and animals do, we sympathise with them more. They’re magical and draw the spotlight, they call to our innate desire to personify and humanise everything; we delight in their play as children delight in the antics of their toys.”

Photo credit: Claudine Quinn/Lens On Legs

Both shows have proved a hit so far, with a host of four and five star reviews, and Henry’s looking forward to sharing them with a London audience: “Bringing the shows to London and specifically to Wilton’s Music Hall is going to be incredible. It’s another feather in the Balkan bad boys of puppetry’s cap as they march towards inevitable world domination, and the beautiful theatre is the perfect backdrop for Tatterdemalion. If you’ve never been to Wilton’s Music Hall you must come to the shows just to see it. It’s the oldest grand music hall in the world.”

So of the two shows, which one does Henry recommend? “I’m in Tatterdemalion so that one…” he suggests. “But seriously, I’m proud of both the shows and they are great for different reasons. If you’re a puppetry fan, Boris & Sergey is pure puppetry fun, whereas Tatterdemalion has a sprinkling but will appeal more to physical theatre fans. Neither are pretentious though, we take a tongue in cheek approach to our art and work.” 

Then again, with a 20% discount for multiple booking, we could just see both…

Catch Boris & Sergey’s Astonishing Freakatorium and Tatterdemalion at Wilton’s Music Hall from 9th-13th May (for dates and times of each show, visit the website).