Titania, queen of the fairies, is peeved with Oberon, her king, reproaching him for spoiling her revels "by made fonta and rubdoo... to da wittering wind." Titania, you see, is Japanese. "The wigban holds you, and depressive verds!" cries Demetrius, the confused lover of Helena. "Have you a touch of bottleneck?" she asks with concern. They are French. Puck observes: "Two of what kindness mix of pork." He seems to be Indonesian.
While these novelties are the result of the performers' struggles with Shakespeare's tongue, native English speakers, in Patrick Hayter's Footsbarn production, also put in their two groats' worth. "I'm leaving the building!" the temperamental Bottom flings over his shoulder as he stalks out of rehearsals. "I'm throwing an artistic wobbly!"
Named for the Cornish building where it began, in 1971, Footsbarn now has its headquarters in the South of France, and its multinational players include musicians playing raga, flamenco and calypso. Apart from a brief engagement at the Globe, this is their first London appearance in 17 years.
The tent they have pitched in Hackney is roomy and warm, with cushioned seats, toilets, and a bar serving draught Guinness. The play itself is not so suitable to English tastes – at least, not to those English people who want their greatest poet to be more than an excuse for clowning. The four lovers begin the evening in feathered costumes and bird masks and perform avian mating dances. The fairies are rubber-faced, hunchbacked trolls, and Theseus and his Amazon bride (she missing a right breast) wear huge, curved horns.
Cut to two hours and 10 minutes (no interval), played by a pocket cast (two mechanicals short), the play has lost a great deal of its luscious verbal music – the evocations of flower and bower, night and musk, the commoners' simple but enchanting remarks. With so much spellbinding verse abandoned or garbled, the evening is one of studied eccentricity, depressing overemphasis (Helena knocks on her head when saying "mind", Bottom clashes a pair of cymbals at the end of his lines), and clumsy slapstick. The children in the audience and their parents loved it, as many foreigners must – how reassuring it must be to think you can enjoy Shakespeare without knowing English, without even listening.
A Dream this trivial, at least, can be banished from the mind after a sleep of one's own.
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