There’s an awful lot to like about Tom Morris’s new production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and a fair amount that doesn’t quite work. On balance, the show is a great one, with enough beautiful moments and clever devices to invoke the magic of the fairy world that impinges on the lives of us mortals. And yet, it feels rather as though Morris has thrown all his thoughts at the show and then not stripped any away again – it’s a slightly messy set of ideas, some of which are not seen through or allowed to reach their potential.
Some of this mess is glorious – witty, visually spectacular and often laugh-out-loud funny. Bottom (Miltos Yerolemou) is one of the funniest – and most literal – I’ve seen. Yerolemou plays the part with gusto and, along with the other mechanicals, is extremely funny. However, there are other bits of the show that I really didn’t like. The verse-speaking often feels overblown and heavy, frequently prone to unnecessary stresses and odd pauses; it is jarring to hear and feels as though some odd directorial decisions have been made.
And then we come to the puppets. This production is Morris’s first collaboration with Handspring Puppet Company since War Horse, and the puppets are an integral part of the show. Some of them are, predictably, wonderful. The fairies are particularly lovely, a nice mixture of malevolence and mischief, and make perfect sense as other-worldly beings. The giant heads used to portray Titania (Saskia Portway) and Oberon (David Ricardo Pearce) don’t always work for me; you can see the human manipulators throughout, which I found rather distracting. Perhaps operators who fade into the background, foregrounding the puppets themselves, would have allowed them to truly shine. Here, we get both human actors and the puppets, which is slightly confusing. They are effective as representations of the power that the fairies exert over the humans, but this idea is not really developed. It does resurface right at the end when the gorgeous, giant wooden figures turn the lovers into their puppets where it is a striking visual image, for sure, but not necessarily one that adds anything to the play.
Nowhere is this sense of confusion clearer than in the decision to have the four lovers also each have a miniature puppet-version of themselves. Again, one doesn’t know where to look: are we supposed to be watching the (fantastic) human actors interacting with each other, or to block out their acting and only use their voices to give life to the puppets? It was not at all clear why these puppets were onstage. Were they supposed to represent the inner life selves of the lovers? Perhaps. But why, then, are they completely dispensed with in the second half? Often cradled like children or dolls by the actors in question, it is then weirdly creepy when Hermia (a stormingly fierce Akiya Henry) and Lysander (a pleasingly louche Alexander Felton) swap puppets when they settle down to sleep. In fact, there are parts where plain planks of wood are used to rather more effect than some of the puppets. This is not to disparage the puppets, which were beautiful objects, but rather to praise Vicki Mortimer’s design, which uses planks of varying sizes to become trees, musical instruments and hounds.
The cast not only interact fabulously well with their wooden cast members but are also uniformly brilliant actors. Henry’s Hermia is the standout for me, particularly during the fight scene, but Naomi Cranston’s Helena charts an impressive course from weedy to powerful, too. All of the Mechanicals play their parts with gleeful abandon; they are ridiculously over the top and all the funnier for it. Colin Micheal’s put-upon Quince is a delight, and Saikat Ahamed gets a lot of laughs as a non-English-speaking Snug. Stealing the Mechanicals’ show, though, is David Emmings’s Snout: his lop-sided Wall is utterly brilliant. The human-human interactions are beautifully played and excellently directed.
The second half is much punchier than the first, which occasionally feels baggy. As the madness of the woods takes hold of the characters, the play comes into its own: the magic begins to come alive properly and it becomes uproariously funny. Overall, it’s a very funny Dream, and one that will stick in the mind. I spent most of the second half giggling and left thoroughly contented. It’s a visually gorgeous production, with perhaps a few too many puppets. There were times (mainly when jellyfish appeared, for no discernible reason) when this Dream really was beyond the wit of man to tell what dream it was, and others when it was tender, clever and hilarious. A production that touches on the good, the bad and the odd.
A Misdummer Night’s Dream is at Bristol Old Vic until 4 May. For more information and tickets please visit BOV’s website.
Photo: Simon Annand.