“If we shadows have offended…” says Puck, closing the two-hour long production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream with the well-known epilogue. And while Joe-Hill Gibbins’ production promised to be a dark interpretation of this light-hearted comedy, at the end I wished we were offended. But really all I am left with is mild confusion and unfulfillment.
Although the production was said to be a midsummer night’s ‘nightmare’, rather than ‘dream’, it has an atmosphere that is more depressing than dark. The actors step onto the thick, dark mud that covers the entire stage, wobbling about as they try to find their balance.
The ceiling is low with dim, gloomy lights, and in the back, a mirror reflects the audience, enclosing the players with watchful eyes. All actors remain on set throughout the piece, often forming tableaux in the background. The set is simple and clean (that is until odd props such as water bottles, papers and tights enter the space). Not enough to become a stylistic motif, but too much to adhere to the sets initial minimalism.
Sure, there is something oddly satisfying about watching Jemima Rooper’s Hermia fall face flat onto the mud, or Lysander (John Dagleish) and Demetrius (Oliver Alvin-Wilson) wrestle on the floor like children on the playground. The dirt helps to ground the play and reject any chance to be pretentious about Shakespeare. But while the cast gets dirtier and dirtier, the vision for the production remains pristinely bland. Gibbins, a director who tackled Shakespeare’s ‘problem play’, Measure for Measure at the very same theatre only last year – with bold choices that took no prisoners – seems now to play it safe with a play that has the potential to be incredibly funny, and dangerously dark.
Somehow this production is neither: it sits uncomfortably between the humorous (both Lloyd Hutchinson’s blasé Puck and Leo Bill’s excited Bottom receive quite a few laughs from the audience) and the twisted. Truly the only nightmarish scene is in the end, when Bottom goes from playing Pyramus to kissing Titania, and the entire cast starts to run around, frantically chanting lines from the play. A calamity that, while is effective, arrives too late in the play; and instead of bringing closure, confuses the tone of the performance.
It is a shame, because the cast is full of strong performances. Michael Gould brings an unrelentingly harsh Oberon whose jealousy does not budge, and Anastasia Hille has some truly moving moments as Titania. But many of the choices are confusing. Hermia seems to be the only lover at the end who feels traumatised by the experience she’s been through, while Demetrius is giggly and hardly stops moving while watching the mechanicals’ play.
Of course Shakespeare can be performed just the way it is; not all productions need radical changes or inventive settings to reimagine the story you have heard so many times. The problem with this Young Vic production isn’t that it lacks gimmicks, but that its genre and the performers’ delivery seem to be at odds with each other; and so, the overall experience ends up being inconclusive and underwhelming.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream is played at the Young Vic Theatre until 1 April. For more information and tickets, see youngvic.org.