A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Civil Brawl Theatre Company, directed by Richard Nunn at Number 1 Shakespeare Street, Stratford upon Avon, 18 July 2017
Reviewed by Sara Marie Westh
“A sad tale’s best for winter”, says Mamillius, which implies that merry tales, such as Dream are perfect for summer. Civil Brawl’s production in the upper floor at Number 1 Shakespeare Street is certainly merry.
Setting off the comedy, the now traditional – and, it feels, almost obligatory – emphasis on the darker elements of fairy are represented by having Oberon (Jason Rivers) and Puck (Loretta Hope) don biker-style jackets with back patches reading “FAIRYLAND” under a grinning skull. The program informs us that the fair kingdom is imagined as split between the king and queen, dark and light “Seelie and Unseelie”. Furthermore, the fairy realm is set apart from the human reality by being, essentially, our modern world. The first bifurcation communicated smoothly, Oberon a dark centre to Titania’s (Rachel Green) whimsey, his tightly controlled speeches appearing almost antithetical to her ad-libbing. The frequent breaks away from traditional metre and rhyme scheme on behalf of Titania seemed at first to be an odd departure from the text, and I admit I found it fraying. Yet, in her interactions with her fairy band, high-energy and peppered with short commanding bursts, Green’s performance became an insightful comment on the character. This Titania was as unconstrained by the demands of her spouse as by audience expectations of fairy royalty and the text’s restrictive rhythm. Where this Oberon picked up from the brooding, ancient god the RSC sought to capture in their 2016 Dream, Titania brought the Young Vic’s 2017 unruly fairy queen to her logical conclusion. It was a truly bold decision, adding verbal space to the character, a change that made her eventual subjugation so much more poignant.
While I did enjoy the aesthetics of the show, the programme’s promise of placing the fairies in our world unfortunately did not communicate effectively. The costumes, a mixture of gowns, capes, period pieces, leather jackets, torn stockings, half-masks, and, for Puck, face paint, spoke of a world out of time rather than one mirroring our own. The fairies were identifiable by their face masks, paired with costumes that veered from formal to Rufio. In their dress, then, none of the characters struck me as particularly contemporary. The syringes that replaced flowers, and that sent the lovers to sleep at the end of their sojourn in the woodland, was a detail that, while an interesting idea, seemed to carry little real meaning in the play-world. Puck, alone among the fairies, wore no mask, setting her apar. The colour scheme of her makeup along with her acrobatics were evocative of Mark Quarterly’s Ariel from the RSC Tempest, which recently transferred to the Barbican: in spite of trappings ranging from digital avatars to denim both performances were at heart thoroughly traditional, offering airy spirits that gambol in tight costumes.
The mechanicals, as always, did not disappoint. Their big, white shirts reminded me pleasantly of the 1999 movie, this Bottom’s (Mike Bower) exuberance out-Klinening Kevin Kline. While this made for a fast-paced, hilarious performance, long on belly laughs, it did not leave much room for the kind of introspection that can, on occasion, allow a more rounded characterisation of the play’s comic relief to emerge. A few clever touches in their casting introduced new dynamics into the group, Robin Starveling (Jody Loren) being gender-swapped and immediately striking up a sexually charged relationship with Peter Quince. Quince, the flailing and exasperated director was played by the play’s director, Richard Nunn, a decision that reflected hilariously, I assume, on his own experience behind the scenes.
The lovers were portrayed in the traditional vein, colour-coded for our convenience, the one exception being Helena’s proclivity for punching her fellow sufferers in the face. While this can, certainly, feel both deserved and satisfactory in the case of Demetrius (Tim Atkinson) and Lysander (Louis Osborne), striking Hermia (Kristy Ford) after goading her about her height, and during one of the most rattling scenes in the play, where she is brutally renounced by her lover, feels unnecessary and adds a truly malicious streak to Helena (Hannah Perrin). The solid performances of all four lovers failed to distract me from this deeply unstelling moment.
Finally, a decision in the staging left me mystified: the space above the Number 1 is fairly small, comparable, in fact, to the Wanamaker, although imbued with far more forgiving sight-lines. Attempting split-focus staging, where, for instance, the boys wrestle in one corner while the girls talk in the other, or Oberon fashions an invisible lasso while Helena chases Demetrius, is, at best, distracting, and, at worst, causes the bodily scuffle to drown out the words. In a space like the RSC this manner of bustle can work quite well, and was, indeed, a mark of their 2016 production, but in a small space the perpetual action competes for audience attention, and verges on visual noise.
It is still worth it: a merry tale is best for summer, and in spite of its occasional hiccups, this is a solid, mostly traditional, Dream.