Sometimes taking your seat as an audience member can be a bit of a turgid affair: the inevitable apologising as you crunch onto someone’s toe, or give your neighbour a sharp elbow to the ribs as you attempt to take some layers off. Not so at Tom Morris’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which sees the Barbican’s auditorium become a bustling hive of activity, as cast feed lines to the audience and exchange banter and quips. Even the poor usher forced to wave the laminated ‘No Photography’ sign is in on the action. This beginning should be read as a sign for things to come, of a performance throbbing with energy, wit and exuberance.
This is a Bristol Old Vic and Handspring Puppet Company production, and the puppetry is very much at the heart of the performance. It is a vital element of the show’s ecosystem. Old paraphernalia from a garden shed are thrust together in a flurry to create movement, life and narrative. Oberon and Titania dominate the space, formed by a giant head and hand, and a sort of peacock tail respectively. The puppetry succeeds in being both haunting and playful, and maintains the whimsy and mysticism of the piece that I believe Shakespeare intended. The puppetry is complemented delightfully with the multi-functional planks, which create a variety of sensations and sounds: raindrops, feelings of intimacy and separation, as well as a fun use of the Greek Chorus. Impressive also is how they are used to form a rising sun, thus signalling the end of this particular midsummer night.
Full credit to the creative team therefore? Well, almost. I couldn’t help feeling that this mesmerising aesthetic was undermined slightly by costume choices that made the cast resemble a cross between an episode of Balamory and the opening of the grouse shooting season. Twee and a little irritating if truth be told, but there to prop up the folksy, acoustic feel I guess.
The performances are also very strong. There is highly efficient work from the ensemble, and both pairs of loved-up couples are likeable and engaging. The night belongs to Miltos Yerolemou however. Yerolemou provides a unique representation of Bottom. His Greek heritage is milked for ultimate comic effect, and he deliberately performs the role to delicious levels of hamminess. In this production, Bottom more than lives up to his name, and an inspired transformation into an ass is as funny as it is unexpected – not easy to achieve, bearing in mind the play is so well-known.
At almost three hours, A Midsummer Night’s Dream does feel a little overdrawn for a modern audience, and risks becoming self-indulgent. A bit of ruthless cutting (including in the players’ scene at the end) would have homed in on the comedy and spectacle created – and almost sustained – throughout. Didn’t someone once say that brevity is the soul of wit? That said, a highly charged and remarkably fresh production. A treat.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream is playing at the Barbican Centre until 15 February. For more information and tickets, see the Barbican Centre website.