London is hardly crying out for another production of ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ this summer, but the lush Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre can stake an obvious claim on Shakespeare’s woodland frolic. Still, watching Dominic Hill’s production, I wondered if he was trying a bit hard not to give in to the surroundings’ potential for twee charm.
Of course, there is darkness to be mined in the play, in its gender politics and in the fairy pranks. Both are brought out here. Athens is run by posh, privileged pricks: there’s an unfettered, entitled male energy to an opening party, with private school bros necking Grey Goose and showing off their beatboxing skills. Hippolyta remains staunchly unimpressed by Theseus’s posturing and, as in Nicholas Hytner’s ‘Dream’ currently at the Bridge, there’s a display of emboldening female solidarity between her and Hermia.
Played by Kieran Hill and Amber James, Theseus and Hippolyta turn into Oberon and Titania, the warring king and queen of the fairies whose quarrel over custody of a little Indian boy is here given real weight. A grey-skinned puppet – actually pretty creepy – toddles round the stage, and eventually helps unite them. But the play starts with a strong sense of the destruction their rupture has caused the natural world: ‘contagious fogs’ belch up from the ground and rumbling, ominous soundscapes hang in the air. In Rachael Canning’s design, the forest is a place of rusty structures, manky mattresses and dirty dresses.
Titania’s fairies are more Halloween than midsummer, more Tim Burton nightmare than dream: spider-like, bent double on stilts. In practice, this renders them more cumbersome than scuttling, and makes the choice to have them communicate with Titania through sign language pretty awkward.
Happily, James is terrific as both Titania and Hippolyta – she speaks the verse with a suppleness that eludes much of the cast, and has an air of real authority. So it’s a lovely contrast when she goes all giddy over Susan Wokoma’s brilliant Bottom. Wokoma plays Bottom with a youthful, uncrushed confidence; her performance feels, fresh, funny and contemporary. That said, they don’t really play up the same-sex attraction: Bottom is delighted to be waited on, but there’s little suggestion of anything raunchier.
Gareth Snook also gives detailed comic performances as Egeus and Quince, making much of usually unremarkable roles. But the Mechanicals’ play isn’t funny enough to give the slower second half the fillip it needs. Likewise, the other great set-piece – the lovers’ quarrel – is basically fine, but hardly side-splitting. Hill seems to want to go bleak on the relationships: there’s real violence in the woods, and when they wake, the lovers can barely look at one another. But just a few hours later, all’s mended, despite the men behaving like braying idiots again the minute they’re back in Athens. You’re left with a sense that, for all the tumult in the wood, nothing’s really changed.