A Midsummer Night's Dream, Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-Upon-Avon

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The Independent Culture

Last year, the RSC fielded an ambitious Stratford season in which the new departures in repertoire took place in the Swan - the excellent Spanish Golden Age season - and the main theatre housed a reconsideration of Shakespeare's tragedies.

Last year, the RSC fielded an ambitious Stratford season in which the new departures in repertoire took place in the Swan - the excellent Spanish Golden Age season - and the main theatre housed a reconsideration of Shakespeare's tragedies. There were intentional and unintentional cross-references between the two groups of work, in subject matter (eg, how did the treatment of honour differ in England and Spain?) and in aesthetic considerations (both theatres used permanent sets to intriguingly varied ends. I'm sure I am not the only person to have found the Spanish season more satisfactory.

Something similar is now going on, with the startlingly fresh Gunpowder Season in the Swan, introducing us to plays written in the aftershock of 5/11 (the Jacobean Age's terrorist equivalent of 9/11) and, in the main house, a reinvestigation of the comedies.

This is not the prelude to declaring invidiously: and, hey, guess what, there's the same gap in quality and interest-value. It's much too early to say, though Gregory Doran's production of A Midsummer Night's Dream, which has just opened the comedies season in the RST, does not properly get into its stride until the second half. I took two 13-year-olds with me, who had seen the play before and are now rehearsing in a school production. In the interval, they found it hard to disguise a vague disappointment. By the end, though, they left the theatre on air, after one of the most deliriously funny performances of the "Pyramus and Thisbe" interlude that has yet trodden, and collapsed upon, the boards.

In what must have been an uncommonly exhausting double task, Doran has masterminded the Gunpowder repertoire and here kicked off the sister season. Already you can savour the cross-resonances. In the Swan now there's Middleton's A New Way to Please You, a black tragicomedy that shows the young turning legally murderous on the old with a new edict sanctioning the culling of the elderly. Alongside it, with thought-provoking piquancy, is an interpretation of the Dream that lays very pointed emphasis on the way the reverse happens in Shakespeare's comedy. Here it's the old who issue death-threats against ardent young lovers.

The production - overhung by a large, permanent Moon and played with fairy puppets and a forest evoked by transmogrified junk - opens with a trompe-l'oeil sequence. The spectacle of one warrior in classical armour vanquishing another turns out to have been a bout of fencing practice between Theseus and Hippolyta, with the wife asserting victory. It emphasises how the laws of Athens mock this show of (more-than) equality. It also sets up the opposition between deluded seeing and true emotional perception that is incarnated in the nice knockabout treatment of the four young lovers.

Despite some good performances from the principals (Malcolm Storry as Bottom, Joe Dixon as Oberon), the production decisively takes off only once it reaches the rude mechanicals' play-within-a-play. There seems to be something of an underwear fetish in this interpretation. With the lovers reduced to their white scanties, one began to wonder whether the RSC was trying to boost its revenue by a little lingerie product-placement.

Bottom's line, "Let Thisbe have clean linen," characteristically comes here after Flute/Thisbe has just let off an embarrassingly protracted fart. In a joke that just gets more and more helplessly funny, the hole in the wall is embodied by the long, bare, parted legs of Snout, whose Y-fronted crotch keeps confronting the hapless Thisbe with a silent obduracy that is a wonder to behold. A legend in his own lunchbox. It's humorous and heartwarming that this Wall is later caught in a consoling gay hug with the leotarded would-be avant-garde luvvie version of Peter Quince.

Booking to October (0870 609 1110)

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