Some of Shakespeare’s comedies beg for dystopian settings, but A Midsummer Night’s Dream is not one of them. Stagings of the problem plays frequently dwell on their moral ambivalence and politico-sexual shadiness – while the RSC’s ongoing production of The Comedy of Errors emphasises the austere rigor of Duke Solinus’s regime by introducing unscripted on-stage torture. The darknesses of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, by contrast, are apolitical – concerned not with the statute books but with the deceits and subterfuges of the heart. Accordingly, the dystopian framework in Drunk Tank Productions’ Fringe interpretation of the Dream is a surprising choice: Shakespeare’s characters inhabit a post-fallout world of nuclear shelters and propaganda films, less a dream than a sustained nightmare.
In a world where the Bomb has been dropped, it’s impossible to believe in the dramatic arc of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which concludes (as do most Shakespearean comedies) with the restoration of a social order deemed at least moderately benevolent: as Puck says, “Jack shall have Jill / Nought shall go ill.” The time-limited nature of Fringe shows precludes a sustained exploration of what this choice of setting actually means for the play – and at times Drunk Tank’s Dream feels incoherent. Yet the accomplished craftsmanship that this production manifests at every level (from the actors’ performances to the costumes to the set) is so impressive that its lack of conceptual clarity must be forgiven. This is a Fringe show that sweeps its audience along with it through a series of baroque embellishments which serve to enrich an already stylish and hilarious production: the fairies strut across the stage in guns and spangles, while Puck’s extravagant accent – a throaty rustic snarl – astounds the ear and infuses the play’s best-known lines with new life.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream has been sensitively cut to fit its short time-slot. By way of an introduction, black and white film rattles us through the lovers’ dilemma at top speed, but the play proper begins with the disputatious meeting of Titania and Oberon. This choice is a clever one, for Sarah Byrne’s Titania cuts an outstandingly charismatic figure: the audience goes still whenever Byrne enters, and her vocal gifts are put to spellbinding use in interpolated contemporary songs. The standard of acting is uniformly strong, however, with no weak points in this exuberant ensemble cast. Ellen Flynn creates a Helena whose neuroticism controls her, a woman who would be all too pitiable were she not so funny: “I am your spaniel”, she tells Demetrius, and then begins to play out the actions of doglike devotion, literally fawning on her disgusted partner. Stacie Novotny’s Hermia is best when she is angriest, showing unforced comic ability and a decided gift for movement, while Matthew Malone excels in the challenging role of Bottom.
This inventive interpretation of Shakespeare’s Dream benefits from a set which is much more developed and visually striking than is the norm for Fringe productions: Clancy Flynn, Drunk Tank’s art director, deserves much credit for her mise-en-scène. As a work of conceptual theatre, this production has minor but undeniable flaws; as drama in performance – watched and experienced in the moment – it is irreverent, enjoyable, and strangely chic. Bursting with talented young actors performing at the top of their game, A Midsummer Night’s Dream deserves to be well-attended for the remainder of the Fringe.
**** – 4/5 stars
A Midsummer Night’s Dream is playing at Paradise in Augustine at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival until 27 August. For more information and tickets, see the Edinburgh Fringe website.