Venue: York Theatre Royal
Runs: 29th November-3rd of December
Director: Sean Holmes
Star Rating: **
Informally greeted onstage by Shakespeare’s inter-textual director Peter Quince, the audience is prepared for the display of eccentricity that is to commence. Followed by a cast flaunting their outlandish and excessive costumes, a studios-worth of quirky music equipment and random Glee-esque outbursts into song, the ambiguously characterised Ed Gaughan summarises it in one: given the choice I may have actually paid to see Johnny English Reborn instead.
With the mechanicals modernised as experimental musicians, the inclusion of Grease backing tracks and a peculiar Barry White auto-tune application, the play is squeezed dry for comic value. The powerful spirit and king of the fairies Oberon graces the stage dressed in a tacky, spandex superhero costume and goofy spectacles: it feels laboured. Throwing toddler-temper-tantrums on the floor during his jealous altercations with Titania and celebrating the success of his scheming with a cheesy, antihero cackle, the malevolence and power associated with the role are diminished.
Fergus O’Donnell as Bottom is reminiscent of Jack Black at his most obnoxious in School of Rock. Picked at ‘random’ from the audience as a replacement for the supposedly intended yet unavailable Brian Blessed, Holmes has O’Donnell interject inappropriately; reading the wrong parts and acting upon his ludicrous suggestions for Quince’s production of Pyramus and Thisbe. Causing a stir among the audience, this slapstick humour has its intended effect yet I felt I was not alone in being jarred by the character, in particular by his unnecessary (and horribly cringe-inducing) rock-star-wannabe solo.
Though made relatable by comparing the ancient Athenian setting to modern day Brighton, this seems to be at the cost of the play’s integral ethereality and romance. Conceptually, the keyboard sounds and pitch-altering microphones had the potential to convey the ambivalence of the supernatural, forest-dwellers. The result, however, is the sense that you have instead encountered rejects from an 80s pop group.
Given Holmes’ bizarre, directorial ambition, the cast must at least be commended for their commitment. On the whole, the recitation of the Shakespearian dialogue is flawless: the Romantic rhythm (at least) still fortunately intact. In particular, Rebecca Scroggs’ portrayal of Helena’s character is exceptional; drawing upon both the audience’s sympathy and humour in her self-consuming, devoted love for Demetrius.
The modernisation and reinterpretation of Shakespeare has proven to be a tireless pursuit; one which results in each director trying to out-do his or her predecessors. Although admirable in his attempt to make the text accessible, Holmes transforms the dark-comedy into a light-hearted-pantomime that bears little resemblance to the original text and its meaning. Go along if you fancy a giggle or want to have your kids or young siblings better acquainted with Shakespeare, but by no means have any hope for an artistic masterpiece.