A Midsummer Night’s Dream by Shakespeare from Russia. Part of the RSC open air Dell performances, July 2019.
Reviewed by Sara Marie Westh
Sometimes you stumble on something truly excellent, and it becomes all the more so by being unexpected. I have attended the RSC Dell performances for several years now, and have enjoyed myself entirely. As a student, I consider the fact that they are free a bonus, and there is something pleasantly subversive about the format: you can come when you like, leave when you like, and no one raises an eyebrow at your departure. It is the most free form of theatre I have encountered, which i probably why it is so dear to me.
While I enjoy this summertime offering, I did not expect it to offer one of the best versions of A Midsummer Night’s Dream I have ever seen. With the added framing narrative of the Spinster Society, Dream became a playful way of its performers engaging with their own struggles with men, the formidable spokesperson Olga Dmitrieva taking on the role of Oberon when all other members refused. So the stage was set for an interrogation of gender roles and the way we rely on them in assessing our relationships as women, as well as gentle sending up of how the entire topic itself.
All in all quite promising, I thought, as I settled down on one of the picnic blankets. Then followed an apology from the spokesperson: not all the members of the company spoke English – in fact, some of them only knew the words of their role. They were sorry for their accents, and offered (perfectly delectable) Russian sweets by way of further apology. Imagine the sheer courage demanded to stand up on stage in Stratford, in this political climate, and do Dream. I was blown away.
And the performance itself offered some of the strongest comedic acting I have seen recently. Elena Fedorova’s Titania was a powerful presence, hilariously undercut by her theatricality, while Raisa Vasilyeva, Anna Lesnykh, and Kate Dubova as the fairies were at once graceful and giggling, a mixture of the fairies we imagine and the youngsters who so often embody them. Nick Bottom – Sergey Shulzhenko – was the only man on stage, and in keeping the framing narrative was picked from among the audience. His performance favoured swagger over the traditional bumbling idiocy of the main mechanical, but to see a self-assured Bottom brought a different twang of joyful acceptance to his adventure with the fairies.
In my opinion, a good Dream stands or falls with the play within the play, and here, too, Shakespeare from Russia proved innovative: opening with a side-splittingly hilarious masque of the play, with the mechanicals acting out the storyline in interpretive dance, was as surprising as it was welcome. Anna Fedorova’s Peter Quince was perfectly pitched, with just the right amount of failed stage-mastery to both amuse and invite a twinge of pity, Anna Lesnykh’s Snout/Wall excelled in the physical comedy the role invites, and Irina Blinova’s Snug/Lion was a fierce beast, who, having roared and gored Thisby’s mantle, took great care to fold it up very neatly at the centre of the stage. Thisby, played by Olga Lopatina managed to hold off the pathos of her part for much longer than I’ve seen elsewhere, which heightened the tragedy hiding behind the end of the play within the play.
All in all, this was a masterful production, which managed on a shoestring what big commercial theatres have failed to do with lottery millions: an engaging, thoughtful, and entirely enjoyable Dream. I only hope to see the company again next summer.