‘Are you sure that we are awake? It seems to me that yet we sleep, we dream’ Act IV, Scene I, A Midsummer Night’s Dream
At first I was bemused by the programme which promised that this production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream – a tale of misplaced passions and the chaos that ensues – had been created with ‘fresh eyes’. For these fresh eyes seem to have been tainted, as if with Oberon’s magic potion. To use words which are fittingly as original as that which they describe, the characters ‘exploded onto the stage’, bolting into the intimate Tobacco Factory space with guns pointed sideways at each other. This opening, which in isolation would seem energetic, was a red flag. In current Shakespeare productions it seems a hidden clause for a barrage of arms and weaponry to become an absolute necessity; if no guns are wielded, no shouts shouted, then Shakespeare’s prose is redundant. The Herman cake of theatre, the theme of ‘a dystopian imagining of a near-future Britain’ has been so overdone it feels as if it has been taken from an archive – I welcome the apocalypse if only to cease endless regurgitation of ‘modern day imaginings’. It feels laboured at the least, and at its extreme, lazy.
Despite this, at first the opening conceit of the Game Show was an original, sparky idea, highlighting the strained, fabricated relations between Theseus (Luca Thompson), King of Athens, and Hippolyta (Charleen Qwaye) who had been ‘wooed with [Theseus’] sword’. The Game Show motif drew attention to the superficiality of love in the mortal world, before the Athenian lovers enter the forest. Yet, ‘so quick bright things come to confusion’. The Game Show motif was left rather undeveloped – director Mike Tweddle should have used it to its full potential. The ridiculous dramatic shoot-off scenes were, however, returned to, but seemed to be shoehorned into the play - as if the director suddenly panicked about the neglected box of guns in prop room 2.
Despite this disappointing beginning, the pace, and thereby the audience’s engagement, picked up upon entry into the forest. The fairies were wonderfully imagined: manifesting onto the stage and stripping the gaudy exterior off the Athenian Palace, moving with fluidity up and down the ‘trees’ at four points on the stage. The set was impressively fresh and imaginative, serving as a wonderful backdrop for Oberon’s manipulation of the Athenian lovers, who, upon entering the realm of the forest, fall wrongly in and out of love.
The world of Midsummer is completely immersive, and the text rich enough to make ‘imagination [body] forth the forms of things unknown’. However, there were some clunky elements which shattered the illusion. Titania’s accent was strange and didn’t seem to fit the grand role of Fairy Queen that we premeditated. Oberon was also unconvincing, lacking the seduction and power that is to be expected of the King of the Fairies. However, the two sets of lovers managed to grow into their roles. At first shouty and a bit too deliberate with their acting – remember The Tobacco Factory is an intimate space, so any hammy acting immediately becomes too much to stomach – they eventually flourished. The play was gender bending, with a female Lysander, and a male Helana (enter: Helanus), and the lovers’ banter was wonderfully witty and sharp. Helanus, played by Joseph Tweedale, and Demetrius, played by Dan Wheeler, were easily the best thing about the production, with measured and perfectly timed comedic performances. Wheeler, doubling as Flute in the Engineers company, is a veteran of the Propeller Theatre Company, an all-male group who toured with an outstanding production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in 2014. That I noticed Wheeler’s talent, which overshadowed the rest of the cast, is testament to the company’s high calibre and deep understanding of Shakespeare’s performed text. Thus, I couldn’t help imagining that the best moments in the Tobacco Theatre production – the quirky touches and considered moments of acting - seemed to be little pockets of genius inspired by the Propeller Company. Certainly, the slow-motion scene when the engineers attempt to escape from Bottom, who is transformed by Oberon into an ass, had the audience in fits: Flute’s exit, pursued by a donkey, is an example of comedic excellence.
This is a play of two halves: the forest won me over more than the scenes which took place in Athens, which, to be fair, isn’t uncommon in Midsummer. Yet, even within the forest scenes, the engineers seemed to carry the play - something I never thought I would ever write, as such scenes are notoriously dull. The play feels more clumsy than previous Shakespearean productions at The Tobacco Factory, such as their remarkable Macbeth . This was to the extent that Puck’s monologue, consoling the audience that the ‘weak and idle’ theme of the play is ‘no more yielding but a dream’, could be related to a little too much. I will, however, be waiting in anticipation for The Tobacco Factory’s next Shakespeare production to restore amends.
Esther Bancroft, Theatre Editor