Some critics recently accused Sean Holmes’ Lyric Hammersmith production of Saved of being a touch reverential; of deferring to the text rather than interrogating it. It is an accusation that one would be joyfully hard-pressed to apply to his and Filter Theatre’s take on the Dream; from the addition of a 50s doo-wop number courtesy of the London Snorkelling Team, to the woods’ incarnation as a mass of microphone wires with a pop-up tent plonked in the middle, Holmes bravely throws out the bathwater and leaves a kicking, screaming newborn production that demands – and deserves – attention.
Crucially, the layers of reinvention never obfuscate or muddy the work; Jonathan Broadbent’s rip-roaring performance as Oberon a la superhero, complete with blue spandex and cape, is a perfectly reasonable visual indicator of his position as king of the fairies. Add in the tantrum-throwing single-mindedness of a toddler and a nerdy voyeurism as he delights over Hermia and Helena’s catty exchanges, and the result is a powerful deconstruction of the character’s insecurities and immaturities, with a heady dose of laughter thrown in for good measure. Similarly, the decision to have Ed Gaughan open the piece as himself with a stand-up routine injected with local gags before slipping into the role of Peter Quince allows for the blurring of fantasy and reality which characterises Shakespeare’s play to be made explicit and appropriate for the condensed running time – such quirks run throughout, and are received warmly – hysterically – by the audience.
The sheer, unadulterated joy of the production is in its recognition of the danger and tedium of churning out a Dream that differs only slightly from ones audiences will have seen before. RSC directors must come up against this problem when having to honour the text whilst producing a version that will not merely be dismissed against Peter Brook’s legendary 1970 revival. Here, Filter’s freedom to play, explore and innovate is crucial. Fine delivery from Victoria Moseley, Rebecca Scroggs, Rhys Rusbatch and Simon Manyonda as the four young lovers is made even more enjoyable by the same actors’ ability to descend into a no-holds-barred food fight. In understanding the play and its characters, Filter consistently finds opportunities to illuminate the text whilst also gently ribbing it; taking Shakespeare back to its Elizabethan roots as entertainment.
In fact, when teachers, schoolchildren, critics and even other writers (Voltaire and Tolstoy have been among them) proclaim the Bard to be irrelevant, dull even, this production establishes that the answer is decidedly not to translate Romeo & Juliet into text-speak or set Hamlet in high school. It is to approach the act of theatre-making as Filter and Holmes have: with verve, confidence and energy, creating work which maintains a crystalline connection to its four hundred year-old inspiration, whilst fascinating as a piece of twenty-first century performance in its own right.
Filter Theatre’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream plays Bristol’s Tobacco Factory until 26 November before continuing on tour, and at London’s Lyric Hammersmith early next year. For more information and tickets, see the Tobacco Factory’s website.