A Midsummer Night's Dream
The Royal Shakespeare Company recruit Belfast's Belvoir Players for a frothy but 'bags of fun' take on the timeless comedy
A Midsummer Night's Dream is a story of madness. A tale of the dark depths of human longing, of feverish, sticky limbed intensity and the abject pain of love denied.
It’s also the story of a floundering amateur dramatic group believing that the plot of the tragedy they are about to stage (Pyramus and Thisbe) will be enhanced by a tinker named Tom Snout portraying a brick wall. The players also include a series of disclaimers at the start of the show so as not to offend or upset their audience - Shakespeare was doing 'it's health and safety gone mad' gags four hundred years ago.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a long and endlessly elastic play: it is all things to all people, as evidenced by Russell T Davies' colourful cocktail of Nazis, lesbianism and Duran Duran videos screened on BBC1 the night before I go to see this production. It is therefore an ideal candidate to become a 'Play for the nation', to quote the rather awful strap-line on the posters.
This initiative finds the Royal Shakespeare Company touring the land and working in conjunction with local theatre companies; in this case it is the redoubtable Belvoir Players. Of course, being all things to all people runs the risk of being nothing to anyone. This production however has an awful lot of wonderful moments, one or two stand-out performances and is genuinely bags of fun.
The action is wildly complicated but, in essence, the plot is as follows: Lysander (Jack Holden) and Demetrius (Chris Nayak) love Hermia (Mercy Ojelade). Nobody loves Helena (Laura Riseborough) though she loves, to the point of debasement, Demetrius. Oberon (Chu Omambala) and Titania (Ayesha Dharker), the faery King and Queen, have had a tiff, and Oberon dispatches the mischievous sprite, Puck (an astounding Lucy Ellinson), to exact a revenge on her with magical love eye-drops.
Meanwhile, nearby, an amateur theatrical group are attempting to impress Theseus, the Duke of Athens, at his wedding to Hippolyta the Queen of the Amazons, by staging a feeble dramatic work. All three stories interlink to a greater or lesser extent, and with a bit of magical fudging, it all ends happily, if you don’t think about the whole Demetrius/Helena thing.
The stage is sumptuously set: columns of red velvet fall from the ceiling. There are strings of fairy lights and sand-bags hang like clock-weights, glowing eerily with muted phosphorescence. The costumes tie in neatly with the martinet Duke’s court: WWII chic is all the rage: all R.A.F. uniforms, back-to-the-land hairnets and hacking jackets.
This doesn’t seem to drift over into the Faery world, however: Mustardseed (Ben Goffe) may dress like a '40s spiv, but the rest of the faerys seem to have raided Stevie Nicks' dressing-up box. Oberon slinks in a white silk suit while Titania vamps in an infernal red number.
The young cast fling themselves into paroxysms of abandon, Demetrius and Lysander, in particular, butting heads, as they joust for the affections of first Hermia and then a thoroughly confused, Helena. Their bowing and scraping is gloriously effective: at one point Lysander slides on his knees across the stage like a child at a wedding.
Special mention must also go to Lucy Ellinson’s Puck, Oberon’s delinquent messenger. This really is a masterclass of tricks and tomfoolery. She rings expression out of every extension of her body, curling up like a passion fish, clambering up and down the set, and always her voice perfectly measured, not a syllable dropped, not a line misjudged. Remarkable.
Belvoir Players as the Mechanicals
Plaudits must also doled out to the Belvoir Players as the Mechanicals (who are quite rude on occasion), the doughty labourers who are good naturedly sneered at by the gentry at the play’s conclusion. They have a ball with it. Always a showy part, Trevor Gill’s Bottom, is exceptional: a preening, puffing, narcissist, who never-the-less remains lovable throughout. Even lying in Titania’s piano boudoir, demanding head scratches from her court, he is a delight: a spoiled child having his laziest ever day.
The rest of the players are equally good and comedy is rung mercilessly from the awfulness of the amateur tragedy: there are funny walks, broad Belfast accents, elaborate death scenes, and a bit with a wall. The court of Athens, in their black tie and tails, look on utterly baffled, occasionally staring out into the audience as they guffaw. Laughs are relentlessly milked and no quarter is given: the audience are mugged into submission.
The play starts stiffly but gradually develops a tremendous rhythm, director Erica Whyman working meticulously, the production bustling with energy. Not everything works: some of the musical interludes distract rather than colour, and I could do without the Lionel Bart-isms of some of the larger production numbers. And that dark heart, where 'lovers and madmen have such seething brains' is very much underplayed.
This is a frothy and family friendly concoction; there is none of the aching madness that lies at the centre of the text. This is a production that takes its lead from one of Pyramus and Thisbe’s many prologues, (and oddly enough, Billy Butlin’s preferred slogan for his holiday camps) 'Our true intent is all for your delight.' And on that intent this show delivers magnificently.
A Midsummer Night's Dream is at the Grand Opera House, Belfast until Saturday, June 4. For full times and ticket booking visit www.goh.co.uk.