When I was studying for my English literature degree up in Newcastle back in the days when dinosaurs roamed we were so fortunate to have the RSC touring annually. As a rather precocious reviewer for the Newcastle Journal, second only to the then-theatre critic Phil ‘poison’ Penfold, I had the luck to see Ian McKellen’s Richard III, Simon Russell Beale’s Edward II, Saskia Reeves in Much Ado and Linda Marlowe in Volpone.
I also had the most delicious fling with one of the RSC cast members; possibly taking course work a little too far but there we are. Since that early glut of Shakespeare I’ve been rather remiss about following the Bard. I did catch Ben Whishaw and Jude Law as Hamlet but shamelessly booked for the headliner rather than what I consider to be Shakespeare’s finest tragedy.
When I booked tickets for A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Noël Coward Theatre, it certainly wasn’t because I had any desire to see David Walliams’ Bottom. I do have a terrific soft spot for Sheridan Smith; easily one of the most enchanting young actresses on the West End stage today. Her range is truly impressive: a breathless, slatternly Audrey in Little Shop of Horrors and an Olivier Award-winning performance in Flight Path.
The major appeal of this production of the Dream was director Michael Grandage. His 2013 season at the Coward has been a triumph. I adored the wonderful Simon Russell Beale in Privates on Parade and still bore at dinner parties about how true Daniel Radcliffe was in The Cripple of Inishmaan. Grandage’s Dream had mixed reviews. The play has been abridged and the cast do attack the text at a furious pace but is none the worse for that unless you are a scholar or a pedant.
The first ten minutes of the performance was shouty, mannered and uninspiring and one thought it was going to be a rather disappointing evening. But the magic of the Dream sparkles like crystal as soon as the flats rise and an enchanted greenwood is revealed dominated by a full moon where the faerie folk and their king and queen, Oberon and Titania, lead the misrule.
Clever Mr Grandage re-imagines Shakespeare’s faeries as hippy, trippy love children of the Woodstock era with Sheridan Smith’s Titania as a voluptuous, tempestuous faerie queen and Padraic Delaney’s Oberon as a swaggering gypsy king. Mischief is made with hallucinogenic drugs, acid trips and spliffs drawing parallels with drug culture releasing one from inhibitions and pedestrian moral codes.
Miss Smith is one of those rare creatures who can turn gay men straight and is a stage presence who focuses attention with her sheer physicality and craft. You can’t take your eyes off her. But where this production excels is in the casting of the quartet of frustrated lovers Hermia, Helena, Lysander an Demetrius. The very second these characters arrive in the forest they absolutely soar.
Of course it helps that clothes and inhibitions are shed. The boys playing Lysander and Demetrius, Sam Swainbury and Stefano Braschi, are Abercrombie fit. Stripped to tighty whiteys, they gambol like Andrex puppies as playthings of the faerie folk at the mercy of their own passions. The boys are terrific but the girls are sublime. I adored Susannah Fielding’s Hermia and Katherine Kingsley’s Helena: both displaying a genius for physical comedy and a joyous appreciation for Shakespeare’s comedy of the absurd.
The quartet of lovers received a very well-deserved riot of applause in the second half for a bravura scene of fast paced farce and physical comedy that makes one appreciate that playwrights as diverse as Joe Orton and Alan Ayckbourne owe a huge debt of gratitude to Shakespeare. Equally, the scenes between a bewitched Titania and Bottom are boisterously erotic and held the audience in a rather delighted thrall.
And so we turn to Mr Walliams and the ‘mechanicals’. To his credit, probably half the theatre was filled because his name was on the playbill. His first appearance is greeted with a ripple of applause. Was he well-cast as Bottom? Yes. Did he use the opportunity to develop his range? Not at all. Fortunately, the character of Bottom is little more than a Little Britain sketch of a part and Mr Walliams obliged.
When Samuel Pepys saw the Dream in 1662 he called it ‘the most insipid, ridiculous play that I ever saw’ confirming my suspicions that the diarist was of rather limited intelligence and lacking in humour. A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a light and lovely play that may have darker themes but doesn’t make one think too deeply if one chooses not to. That’s my idea of a marvellous evening at the theatre: that plus dinner at Queen Street on a shared pottage of veal shin and lashing of Valpoliparrot. Until next time…