Would you really want to see Charley's Aunt played gloomily straight? Would you want a humourless version of The Rivals, Mrs Malaprop played for psycho-intensity, not humour? Of course not, so why do the repertoire-jaundiced directors of the RSC think we want to watch A Midsummer Night's Dream played without a single laugh?
I am huge fan of Richard Jones – last year he re-invigorated Six Characters at the Young Vic and his Into The Woods remains one of my theatre-going landmarks. He is a restlessly inventive and always surprising director, but I feel this is a surprise too far. The question: is there enough profundity in MSND to play it straight, to evoke an unearthly, blue-lit, monochrome sub-surreal world, and leave it at that?
Call me reactionary, but I don't think there is. For one thing, Shakespeare knew a thing or two about dramatic pacing and many of his comic high points are structured to be punctuated by laughs. Without them, the rhythm of the scenes collapses. The four-hander in the woods when both boys reject Hermia for Helena turns into a torrent of slimy repetitiveness if uninterrupted by the audience's laughter. Humour is more than a cheap get-out: it actually heightens our awareness of the absurdity of the human condition, the lengths we will go to just to get laid. Laughter makes the author's observations crisper, more incisive. Without the absurdity, it's just noise.
And MSND offers a designer so much scope that it seems almost self-lacerating of Giles Cadle to create a black and grey-blue box set environment. Nosferatu-style human trees and giant bluebottles are not enough. But this is a monomaniacal production in every way, determined that we should see the dream-like qualities of this play at the expense of all else.
Theseus (Peter Lindford) and Hippolyta (a barely audible Priyanga Elan), cinctured into Issey Miyake-ish bodices, seem bored by their own wonderfulness. Tim McMullan's Oberon becomes a heroin-chic apathete and Dominic Cooper's Puck is your teen horror flick psychopath. The four young lovers give it their best shot, but without leavening humour, the haul is a long one.
Jones only lets loose the dogs of laughter for the final mechanicals' performance, but by then it's too late, in spite of Darrell D'Silva's likeable, chesty Bottom, who is fearsomely reminiscent of Fred Trueman in his pomp.
There are some wonderful dream-like touches: much of the movement and stagescape has an ingenious, non-logical choreography. The front cloth, painted with a series of prison-break spotlight beams, creates some wonderful tableaux. But it isn't enough. None of the characters seem to be having a particularly good time, so why should I? As Fred himself would say, I just don't understand what's going on here.
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