Review: A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Poltimore House and Grounds, Devon, August 2019) – A Midsummer with heart!

It’s tough to do justice to A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Productions are often very funny, granted: the nature of the comedy – a tale of enchanted lovers, mistaken identity and bodily transformation, set in a magical forest populated by fairies, sprites and clowns – lends itself perfectly to visual spectacle and physical humour. Sometimes, though, it can feel a bit like the director is so intent on wringing the laffs out of every scene that the dialogue is neglected. As a result, productions often lack a meaningful emotional core, and characters descend into broad caricature for the sake of a few extra chuckles: Lysander the sap, Demetrius the rake, Helena the whining teenager, Hermia the feisty one. And while there’s not necessarily anything wrong with a dash of style over substance in a family-friendly comedy – especially when Shakespeare himself so often capitalised on stereotypes and his audience’s preconceptions – it’s nevertheless exciting when a Midsummer tries to do something a bit different.

Fresh off of a well-received performance as part of the Exeter Fringe Festival, not only did this stripped-down, Shakespeare-in-the-park production from Exeter’s own Sun & Moon Theatre company try something a bit different, it succeeded in magnificent style. Boasting hilarity and heart in equal measure, Sun & Moon harnessed the comedy’s madcap energy while foregrounding the very human, very relatable relationships that make this play tick. It may be the finest Midsummer that I have seen. 

The location played no small part in the production’s success: Sun & Moon transported their show to the grounds and courtyard of a dilapidated 18th-century country house. The contrast between the lush garden and crumbling grandeur of Poltimore not only granted the performance space a suitably ethereal air (particularly in the second half), but also felt thematically appropriate for a play about transformation and human fallibility. The performance space itself – a ring of hay bales populated by the picnicking audience – was at once intimate and exposed, closing the distance between actor and audience, and leaving the the cast no place to hide. The backdrop and wings were trees and bushes, the only music came from David Johnson’s Lysander strumming his guitar (the ear-wormy opening chords of Sixpence None The Richer’s “Kiss Me”, in fitting with the production’s late-90s aesthetic), and props were kept to an absolute minimum. 

In short, the actors – and the characters they inhabited – were front and centre. 

And a good thing, too, because the casting and performances were superb. Although every actor in the cast played multiple roles, each character was clearly-defined and utterly engaging. Emerson Pike was a delight as Bottom, played with the confident swagger and clueless braggadocio of Joey Tribbiani (“How art thou doin’?” he asks the fresh-smitten Titania at one point), but his Demetrius was altogether more vulnerable, particularly in his exchanges with Georgina Brown’s Helena. Melissa Barrett, on the other hand, veered between impassioned and self-assured as Hermia, and flighty and childishly impulsive as the chocolate-loving Fairy. 

On occasion, the role-doubling resulted in moments of startling ingenuity. Our first encounter with the mechanicals establishes tension between Peter Quince (played with a long-suffering exasperation by George Bradley) and Robin Starveling (Sally Naylor) when Quince is surprised by Robin’s gender. This energy carried over into the very next scene – a conflict between Bradley’s Oberon and Naylor’s Titania. The overall effect was powerful but understated, and added an additional layer of emotional complexity to latter scene, as well as allowing both actors to showcase regal aplomb. 

As might be hoped in a play built upon love triangles and culminating in three marriages, every romantic pairing clicked in convincing fashion. Indeed, there was an audible gasp from the audience when a bewitched Lysander tore the engagement ring from Hermia’s finger. The most impressive chemistry, however, was that between Barrett as Hermia and Georgina Brown as Helena, both of whom, in just one brief scene at the outset of the play, managed to communicate a lifetime of friendship. Barrett reads Shakespearean verse with captivating fluency and gravitas, while Brown’s body language and facial expressions communicated Helena’s inner turmoil with astounding nuance and efficiency: her gentle smile as she spoke with Hermia was immediately subverted by her pained expression whenever Hermia looked away. One got a palpable sense of Helena being torn between personal romantic desire and deep-seated commitment to her friend. As a result, the sadness of their conflict in Act 3 hit that much harder, and their eventual resolution felt that much more wholesome. Indeed, if I am to nit-pick, my sole reservation with this production is that the argument between Hermia and Helena was somewhat undermined by the juvenile pushing and shoving of Demetrius and Lysander in the background. The comedy was strong, but drew attention away from the energy of Barrett’s and Brown’s pivotal scene. 

Elsewhere, though, it was the small touches and attention to detail that marked this production as something truly special. Brown wore socks patterned with Edvard Munch’s “The Scream”, a design that aptly symbolises not only her character’s desire for attention, but also offers a cheeky metatheatrical nod to her secondary role as the adorable mechanical Snug (or “Snüg”), who played an ineffectual roaring lion in Quince’s film. As Snüg, Brown spent one scene reading a children’s book about Big Cats to prepare for her role. Johnson’s Lysander, even in a magic-induced sleep, still plucked and strummed his guitar as he breathed in and out. In Act 2, Richard Knox as Puck pledged to put a girdle around the earth “in 40 minutes”, a line that I have heard spoken many times before as a brag, but never with Knox’s delightful air of teenage recalcitrance: this was a Robin Goodfellow with better things to do. 

Sun & Moon’s careful character-building paid off magnificently in the grand presentation of the mechanicals’ film, shot in the style of an amateur arthouse student film project full of uncomfortably lingering close-ups and gloriously hammy acting from Pike and Johnson as Bottom-Pyramus and Flute-Thisbe respectively. Heralded by the sounds of a dial-up modem clicking into life, the film relocated the tragic love affair between Pyramus and Thisbe to an internet chat-room where the unlucky pair were hindered by, among other things, a “vile wall” (“The ‘wall’ in question,” director Quince is quick to inform his audience, “refers to a fire-wall”) and a hilariously underwhelming stock footage lion (Snüg was robbed!) . To say any more would be to spoil the fun (I hope that Sun & Moon Theatre make the video available on their website), suffice to say that it takes a special degree of talent to produce a film short at once so hopeless and so endearing.

There was, then, a great deal to laugh about in this production. More impressive, though, was the way it left the audience smiling afterwards. This was a Midsummer with heart as well as humour – a most rare vision indeed.

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