Venue: Friargate Theatre
A Midsummer Night’s Dream is undoubtedly a play done to death. Young Athenians fall in and out of love, charming playmakers entertain with their fancies and folly, and a little magic hidden just outside of the kingdom delights by interfering with order – just enough to set us on edge before the turmoil’s forgotten, given no more thought than a nightmare gone by. Due to its immense popularity there’s not an avenue of this play that directors haven’t explored, and for that reason it’s one I sat down to watch with some, I’ll admit, slightly unfair preconceptions. (“I wonder if they’ll make Puck blatantly gay, or just mildly homoerotic… Or maybe this time they’ll switch the accents so the Mechanicals are posh! So edgy, not.”) Thankfully Well-fangled Theatre’s refreshing take on the ethereal Shakespearean classic shook the pretentious pedestal from underneath me, and I found myself completely hooked on the words drilled into me since Key Stage Three, as if once again hearing them for the first time.
The play’s biggest success lay in its modesty. Any attempt to make A Midsummer Night’s Dream ‘something new’ is doomed to fail, and so while Director Mark France experimented with gender fluidity and physical theatre throughout, the production itself was quite deliberately basic. This was discernible from the start, as Simon Jarvis’ stage design was reminiscent of an A Level textiles lesson. Cardboard and brown paper, wire frames and wooden pegs lined the back wall, with each actor designated their own ‘dressing area’, where they would change with their backs to the audience. The cast all wore a uniform of grey vests and black leggings or trousers, to which they added props which ranged from paper scarfs to beautifully crafted metal masks. When not on ‘stage’ they retreated to their posts and shut down like machines; that is, until something called them out of character, which happened quite frequently. France flirted with the fourth wall throughout, with transgressions ranging from ‘Oberon’ leaving the theatre to call ‘Puck’ from outside, screaming: “Anna? Anna! Has anyone seen Anna? She’s supposed to be on stage!”, to ‘Peter Quince’ taking a seat in the audience for the players’ production of Pyramus and Thisbe. This was charming at first but rather tiring by the tenth time; the audience were left to feel in a kind of limbo – never quite active participants, always spoken to but never invited to speak themselves.
Conversely, there’s something to be said for ambiguity in theatre. The actors’ frequent use of the audience’s space gave the classic, canonical play the kind of depth which it sometimes lacks, and unpredictability was key to livening up a production seemingly never out of season. There was ambiguity too in the director’s choice of genders and sexualities for his characters, as Lysander became Lysandra, the famous crowd-pleaser Nick Bottom became Nicki Bottom, and Bill Laughey played both Theseus and Titania; Josie Campbell both Hippolyta and Oberon. The opening scene was made far more interesting by Hermia’s pleading to be betrothed not to an ‘unfit nobleman’ but a woman, and Lysandra’s pursual of Helena later in the play was blatantly homoerotic. Interestingly, while Oberon and Titania were played by actors of the ‘wrong’ genders, this was not acknowledged in the performance – Oberon remained male and Titania remained female. And so while sexualities were explored by the Athenians, gender identities and masculine and feminine ideals were brought into question by the fairies.
And yet, nothing was radical. France’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream was more familiar to a millennial audience than Shakespeare’s own, meaning the cast pushed boundaries only to keep up. There was absolutely nothing shocking about a lesbian kiss to a tiny theatre full of art-lovers situated above a Pizza Hut on a Saturday night in York, and I think the crew were aware of this. Progressive is the new accessible, it seems.
Stylistically, the production was excellent. Highlights included Patricia Jones’ commanding performance as the buffoon Nicki Bottom, and the Mechanicals’ charmingly appalling production of The Most Lamentable Comedy and Most Cruel Death of Pyramus and Thisbe, which featured brilliant comic timing, earning the biggest laughs of the night. Bill Laughey’s Titania was also beautifully compelling – there was something mesmerising in his stage presence, as he prolonged each syllable to such excruciating lengths that the audience seemed to take a collective breath after each of his monologues, heady from the tension.
Best of all was the split stage directed by Anna Rose James’ Puck, during which the lovers’ fortunes were set straight. Accompanied by Alexander King’s eerie refrains on guitar, at the snap of the little sprite’s fingers the Athenians woke and wandered, settled and slept again one by one. The transitions were effortless, and the effect gorgeously haunting.
Convincing performances all round made for a production contemporary in its politics and timeless in its charm. Falling short of the mark only by way of a slightly lacklustre epilogue, Well-fangled Theatre’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream was a triumph precisely because it respected its limits.