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A Midsummer Night's Dream, Bristol Old Vic


There are some lovely things in it, and there's one riotous surge of profane comic energy, but a faint sense of disappointment lingers over this much-anticipated reunion of director Tom Morris and South Africa's Handspring Puppet Company, the team that conquered the world with the wondrous War Horse.

My complaint is not that the complex puppetry – those intricately articulated and imposing wood-and-leather equine creatures – deployed in the latter has been replaced here by a calculatedly more rough-and-ready approach with much use of found objects. That's fine. And their policy of creating a stage world that plays on our deep-seated animist superstitions, so that we are persuadable that anything can become anything else – this offers, potentially, a rich way into a comedy where the human and fairy worlds unsettlingly intersect and where magic juices play havoc with rational perception.

The problem is that, in practice, the idea works only fitfully – some aspects almost soar; others sag. When they are not playing individuals, the engaging company portray the Athenian forest by moving about holding pieces of wood of uneven length. So far, so drama school.  

But there are moments of eerie delight as when the actors, playing the fairies (who can shift in a trice into the mechanicals) start to tap softly on their respective planks and a flutter of sounds at different pitches gradually assembles into a syncopatedly seductive lullaby.

I loved too the notion of having Puck incarnated as a whizzing swarm of oil can, basket and saw. He's like a smart-ass rebuke to the mechanicals' incompetence at representation. And talking of smart-asses, I will not give away the uproarious depiction of Bottom as a donkey other than to say that the filthy-minded might wonder if there's a reference to War House here that's in every way cheeky.

But in my mind, it's a real mistake to give the well-acted young lovers inert-looking mini-doll versions of themselves that they are required to manipulate while speaking. Even when the workings of the drug set up some justification for a case of alter ego all over their faces, it's still laboriously handled. I found myself thinking heretically of where this tactic might end  – a production of Beckett's Not I where the Mouth now has a Hand that symbolically throttles a Sindy-surrogate? 

I should add that at the matinee I attended, the show entranced a packed audience of a very wide age range.

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