A Midsummer Night's Dream, Young Vic, London, review: There's a deviant, mind-altering drollery running through this that I found delicious

Played on a muddy stage, Joe Hill-Gibbins’s bleak production of Shakespeare’s comedy is going to divide audiences 

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The Independent Culture

Mud, mud, insalubrious mud. Twenty-five years ago Robert Lepage gave us his landmark mud-bath Dream, which sucked audiences into the subconscious of the play – the forest as the id in all its messiness – and doubtless landed himself with some nightmare laundry bills.

Joe Hill-Gibbins is ploughing a similar furrow in this wonderfully intrepid revival at the Young Vic. But whereas Lepage’s show, though prodigious and provocative, was (in my view) leadenly unfunny, there's a deviant, mind-altering drollery running through this production that I found delicious. It’s going to divide audiences. Count me among the yea-sayers. 

Johannes Schutz’s set is a semi-circle of churned-up treacherous mud that makes the last day of Glastonbury look like a tradition that takes place on polished parquet. There's a large mirror at the back. Never offstage for two unbroken hours, the company slip and slide and slump dead-asleep into the quagmire. A slob in a string vest with a sardonic Ulster delivery, Lloyd Hutchinson’s excellent Puck tells Oberon that he will fly off and put a speedy girdle round the Earth with all the airborne enthusiasm of plumber promising to fix your ballcock by lunch time. When he administers the magic juice, he can’t restrain himself from tipping out the entire contents of his plastic mineral water bottle over on one of the unsuspecting young lovers, whose dormant form he then belabours with contemptuous thwacks.  

Sexed-up, anti-ethereal versions of the Dream are becoming the norm now. And there’s a long tradition of highlighting the weird correspondences between the dream world and the waking world of Athens (Oberon and Titania proxy versions of Theseus and Hippolyta. Hill-Gibbins ups the ante in a production that felt, to me, all the more dazzlingly imaginative because it is both heightened and almost downbeat in its rampant dissidence. It never ingratiates itself. The director runs with the fact that dreams are insubordinate and dissolve our docile mental compartments. You know the kind of progression: why has that baby bottle morphed, by degrees, into a man-boob and, oh no, when did I ever ask for a mastectomy? Inspired, counter-intuitive casting brings home how everything is opposite too when you have 40 winks, and counting.

The brilliant Leo Bill turns the conventional idea of Bottom loopily askew.  This is no bumptious am-dram buff, avid for the limelight, but a gentle John Lennon lookalike who treats us to his version of a Maria McKee song. His ass's ears are the limply dangling legs of the pair of lady's nylons with which he has been crowned. They are stuffed – insufficiently to prick up – with cotton wool. He seems to have developed a bust in a similar manner. A water bottle like Puck's (seminal gag) fills his pendulous member. These are signals more confusing than the usual straight-up virility-fantasy jokes.

The text has been shortened (there's less of the mechanicals). The “Pyramus and Thisbe” episode is now a performance in which the boundaries between all the play's various realms are deliriously – and disturbingly – obliterated. Bottom suddenly sees Titania in Hippolyta's face (both roles beautifully played by Anastasia Hille) and becomes mesmerised, while she drinks in his “I have had a most rare vision” speech, delayed to this point. Theseus/Oberon (played with a nervy restlessness by Michael Gould) is a double act not best pleased by the loss of control.

As wily about Freudian dream substitutions as Buñuel and in some ways as English as “The Coventry Carol” (there are some lovely Latin chants), this production is no GCSE crib. But I think young people will love it. TS Eliot said that great poetry can be experienced before it is understood. That’s true of great poetic drama too, and the Young Vic’s revival performs the most vital of tasks. It newly reveals this work to be a profound and playful masterpiece.

A whole generation was turned on to Shakespeare by Peter Brook’s ground-breaking white-box Dream in the early Seventies. I kept wishing that I could be 16 again and experience the play for the first time in Hill-Gibbins’s version. Or, as I admitted to myself later: watching it, I sometimes felt that I was 16 again. Mud in its eye.

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