I’ve never really been all that enthralled by Shakespeare’s comedies. Give me a meaty King Lear or Macbeth any day, dripping with blood and venom, than the lighter stuff, which I’ve always been quick to dismiss as, quite frankly, irrelevant to contemporary audiences. How refreshing it was therefore, to be proved so spectacularly wrong by Michael Grandage’s production, which displayed with relish just how joyous, how funny and how downright wacky A Midsummer Night’s Dream really can be.
The plot, as if you need it, is as follows: Demetrius loves Hermia, who in turn loves Lysander. The jealous Helena, herself in love with Demetrius, watches on. In the forest we meet a band of fairies, and a group of actors in rehearsal (that Shakespeare staple of a play-within-a-play). The Fairy King’s servant, Puck, infects both Lysander and Demetrius with a potion which will make them fall madly in love with the first person they set eyes on: Helena. Much confusion and stamping about ensues before Puck remedies the situation, and all sit down to enjoy the actor’s hammed-up production. I am, of course, paraphrasing slightly.
It may be lazy to describe David Walliams as camp, but he is and delightfully so. He prowls, nay minces, about the space, sensing when to dominate scenes (which he does with ease), and when to step back, allowing other, sweeter, softer, comic moments to shine. Walliams gives the occasional knowing nod and wink to the audience, and leads with aplomb the play-within-a-play scenes, which lovingly send-up ego-driven rehearsal processes across theatre-land.
Alongside Walliams, Sheridan Smith glimmers as Fairy Queen Titania, but it is important to recognise that hidden behind the star names are some other excellent and riveting performances. Katherine Kingsley as downtrodden Helena provides a thoroughly gutsy and feisty turn. Whilst other Shakespeare play may well be misogynistic (think The Taming of the Shrew) Kingsley’s Helena is empowered. Likewise, Gavin Fowler displays a sleek and mischievous charm as Puck; he skips about the space with a frantic energy which more than carries the audience along with him. Fine performances are to be found across the board in fact.
Christopher Oram’s set and costume design also help to revitalise a play now 418 years old. We are greeted by psychedelic fairies, akin to the chorus line of Hair, complete with Acid House smiley face belts. Elsewhere, we are confronted by a massive full moon, haunting and whimsical at the same time. This is perhaps let down slightly by baffling musical accompaniment: snippets of songs, such as Paul Simon’s The Sound of Silence, felt a little surplus to requirements.
It’s been quite a season already for Michael Grandage. Privates on Parade was one of the shows to see last Christmas. The Cripple of Inishmaan by my favourite contemporary playwright Martin McDonagh continued to prove that Daniel Radcliffe is far more than the Harry Potter franchise, and Henry V with Jude Law is still yet to come. A Midsummer Night’s Dream more than holds its own amongst this prestigious line-up.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream is at the Noel Coward Theatre until 16 November. For more information and tickets, see the Michael Grandage Company website.