Review: A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Bristol Tobacco Factory Theatres

Tobacco Factory modernise this much-loved classic with its gender bending and dystopian style performance; endeavouring to create a political edge, whilst maintaining the playful energy of Shakespeare’s comedic characters.

The recasting of genders is not used within this production to rebalance the male-dominated Jacobean play, nor to provide the opportunity for more complex female parts, but in order to improve the relevance of the plot itself. Hermia is forbidden to marry the now female Lysander by her father and forced into a betrothal to Demetrius. This is a seamless and logical swapping, which adds not only to the political relevance, but to the comedy of the love confusion within the forest. However, the recasting of Helena to Helenus feels more forced and some plot issues arise, as Demetrius and Helenus had previously been betrothed it implies that Athens does not oppose homosexuality. Consequently, the opposition to the homosexual relationships surmounts to an old-fashioned father, and this familial conflict possibly would have been more impactful with the focus on a singular couple: Lysander and Hermia. Arguably, through emphasising the political intention of acceptance, the production compromises having a denied love that the audience can completely invest in.

Although, Joseph Tweedale’s portrayal of Helenus is hilarious and character driven, when he, spontaneously, drops to his knees and exclaims “I am your spaniel” to Demetrius, in an unthought-through plea to prevent him leaving, the audience both laugh at his mortification and the relatable social awkwardness.

This production is certainly not lacking in naturally comedically gifted actors, with Heather Williams leading the way with her portrayal of Bottom being a boisterous and engaging crowd-pleaser.

The subversive forest, which is distinctly liberal in its separation from society, is transformed into a dystopian setting. The fairies, rather than trailed in flowers, are noticeably monochrome in their earthiness. They still convey the magical aura, through their swaying movements and animal-like agility, as they climb upon the columns. Although, other than providing an excellent opportunity for exemplary, innovative costume and set design, the dystopian setting has little impact upon the message of the production, and there is no conveyance of the “near-future Britain” that Mike Tweddle intended.

Despite, the emphasis throughout the production being upon the sexuality of the love-square, an extremely powerful, poignant and political message comes from the minor character of Hippolyta; subservient to Theseus-the King-throughout the majority of the production, as the rigid society of Athens blurs into the subversive forest, she revolts.

With so much reimagining of the text there is evidently a directorial focus upon these alterations, but this ‘fresh eyes’ approach also applies to smaller choices across the production. Actors embody their own interpretations of the characters: Charleen Qwaye’s Titania is confident and masculine, Tweedale’s Helenus is much more intelligent than previous portrayals. Also, original modes of transport across the stage and dynamic scene changes are brilliantly original and create a continuous energy.

Overall, a thoroughly entertaining production, which doesn’t disappoint on the humour of this classic, embellished with brilliant acting. This traditionally solely comedic play begins and ends with high-tension scenes and carries political undertones, which pierce through in surprising moments.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream is playing Bristol Tobacco Factory Theatres until 6 April. For more information and tickets, see the Bristol Tobacco Factory Theatres website.