Let’s be clear, the production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, currently playing at the Southwark Playhouse, is not Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream; it is an energetic romp, a play within a play, a youthful, fun, mash-up. And it is a wonderful night out.
Simon Evans (director) tells us, rather pompously in the programme, that he wants us to “fall in love” with this play again, as if we have grown tired of it, and perhaps Shakespeare himself. Trying to re-imagine one of the best known plays in theatre history is a noble endeavour, but not a new one.
Over four hundred years ago Shakespeare wrote a wonderful play, filled with fantasy, illusion, betrayal and trust. Tonight, in a large shed in Southwark, a young group of talented actors, with no set to speak of, and merely painted black walls, presented an evening of drama inspired by Shakespeare’s play; adding passages from Shakespeare’s other works, deleting pages of dialogue and parts, adding the premise of a play within a play, and the dramas of a local theatrical group. What they also managed to do was fill the room with raucous laughter, spontaneous applause, people sitting forward in their seats, and delight on the audience’s faces.
Simon Evans, goes on to say in the programme that he has “in his own way, used the past twelve months to try and rekindle the dwindling romance between audience and play.” What he has done in this production is practically insist that the audience become involved. In the first few moments of the play, when the troupe of actors, arguing about who will play which part, realises that there is an audience watching them, they break the fourth wall, they bring us in, and we become part of the ruse, and the fun begins.
This approach would be dicey in the hands of a less talented troupe. This group of actors appear to relish the opportunity to take a couple of hundred audience members back to a time when they willingly conjured up dreams and stories in their head. And the audience on press night seemed to love it.
The relationships are set up early in the first scenes. Freddie Fox is cast as the egotistical member of the team, merely tolerated by some. He goes on to play Bottom and Demetrius, displaying a strong and resonant voice. His ‘turn’, as amateur actor explaining how he plans to transform into the donkey, and then doing it, is worth the trip to Southwark alone.
Ludovic Hughes (Oberon/Theseus) is the linchpin to the piece. The passages in which he explains the imaginary set changes were full of theatrical delight and wonder; a real tonic to some of the madder moments. And when Ludovic, physically strong and charismatic, delivers the “I Know A Bank Where The Wild Thyme Blows” soliloquy to a member of the audience, being led around the floor like a willing puppet, the audience were in hysterics.
Maddy Hill (Titania/Quince) was elegant and then playful showing she can do more than just television drama. Lucy Eaton (Helena/Starveling) showed a real command of the text, filling the space, she seemed at ease jumping effortlessly between roles.
Freddie Hutchins (Lysander/Flute) and Suzie Preece (Hermia/Snug) showed great imagination and energy. Melanie Fullbrook as Puck, and part-time narrator, had a difficult task and equipped herself well.
To say that Adrian Linford’s design, Jai Morjaria’s lighting design, and Ed Lewis’s sound design were simple… is an understatement. But the brave choices paid off.
The fact that so many members of the audience joined in so willingly during the performance is perhaps the best testament to Simon Evans’ success in staging such a bare and deconstructed version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream; it leaves the audience in a room, with a bunch of actors conjuring up enough trust to join in a magical journey, using Shakespeare’s palette. I wish all theatre was this fun!