Theatre / Dreaming colour: Rhoda Koenig reviews A Midsummer Night's Dream at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford
The designer, Anthony Ward, gives us a scarlet room for Athens and an indigo room for the enchanted wood, with several doors leading out into the night. Starlight is represented by a lot of winking light bulbs, and Titania falls asleep in an upside-down umbrella filled with fuchsia cushions.
The lovers, like the fairies, dress like guests at a smart London party, in violet, emerald, and saffron evening pyjamas; when the bewitched couples fall into a sleep from which they will emerge restored to their senses, each one is wrapped in a sheet and dangled above the stage to slumber in a chrysalis. Unlike the characters in the magical and noble worlds, the Rude Mechanicals look conventionally shabby, though Bottom has been given an aviator scarf and a black leather jacket.
Stronger on visual than on verbal beauty, this Dream lays upon Alex Jennings the burden of most of the poetry, but aren't his shoulders broad. With his sensual voice and chillingly aristocratic manner, Jennings makes Oberon a far more implacable monarch than his affable Theseus, who tells Hermia to choose a loveless marriage, death, or the convent life with an air of, 'Well, the law's the law, can't do anything about it, can I?'
Thwarted by Titania, Oberon condemns her to a monstrous infatuation in a manner that leaves no room for accusations of petulance or spite: his eerie majesty suggests that he is merely incarnating the principle that to disobey the king is treasonous. After Puck drops the love potion on to the wrong lover's eyes, Jennings's Oberon stoops to correct the mistake with an air of 'If you want anything done right, you have to do it yourself', but his masculine presence doesn't permit the slightest note of camp.
Toby Stephens's ingenuous Lysander also speaks the verse with charm and feeling, but Barry Lynch's Puck is hampered by a strange conception of the part. Bare-chested and muscular, this sprite has a more full-blooded appearance and more animal vitality than any of the humans - such an excess of it, in fact, that he can't take leave of Oberon without giving him a big smack on the lips. His swagger also makes his mockery of the mechanicals more unpleasant than it need be: instead of a fairy teasing oafish mortals, he comes over as a tough, good- looking, sneering yuppie.
As Hippolyta and Titania, Stella Gonet makes a rather common pair of queens, and Emma Fielding is a pushy Hermia. With her melancholy-humorous looks, and attractively gangly figure, Haydn Gwynne would seem a perfect choice for Helena - and, indeed, some of the things she does are very good, such as her look of stupefaction (different each time) when Lysander, then Demetrius declare their love for her, and again when she thinks they might mean it. But too much of this performance is done with knees and elbows, Gwynne fulfilling our expectations without adding anything more.
Likewise, Desmond Barrit is curiously disappointing as Bottom. Instead of being over-enthusiastic, his weaver is overbearing, using his bulk in a menacing manner rather than in a way that suggests he is in thrall to excess. The ass's head is simply two hairy ears on his motorcycle helmet and a set of donkey incisors. This lets us see Barrit's expressions, but it also shows how little Bottom is changed by the transformation.
Still, the other 'hard- handed men' are as modestly appealing as anyone could wish, and the glowing design and Jennings's presence triumph over this Dream's deficiencies. The, as usual, excellent music of Ilona Sekacz contributes pomp without pomposity and a sense of mystery that owes nothing to cliche.
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