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Review: A Midsummer Night's Dream (Royal Shakespeare Theatre)

Review by Raphael Kohn

 

⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

 

How do you improve upon the hundreds, if not thousands, of productions of Shakespeare’s comedy A Midsummer Night’s Dream? It’s certainly a challenge for any director in 2024, finding new relevance and still making Shakespeare’s antiquated jokes funny today. Yet, perhaps in this new outing at the RSC, I think that Eleanor Rhode’s production, helmed by Horrible Histories’ Mathew Baynton as ‘Bottom’, may well have truly and utterly smashed it.

 

And it can be a hard one to get right. Five overlapping storylines involve two young Athenian couples, the marriage of the Duke of Athens to his wife, and a whole load of fairies causing mischief intertwining themselves with a group of workers attempting to put on a play for the Duke’s marriage. If it sounds complicated, it is. But this is where Rhode’s talent comes in – a crystal-clear vision and a near-perfect cast makes none of this confusing or strange. It all works perfectly. 



Let’s get one thing out the way first. This play has a character named Bottom in it. Yes, really. I for one have seen quite a few productions of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and each time the child in me giggles a bit at the name. But fear not. I am an adult, and I shall treat this review with the utmost sincerity and not make any bottom puns at all. None. Zilch.

 

Mainly, because this production truly hits the spot. Rhode directs with pin-point precise physical comedy, with the laughs never quite stopping. At no point does it ever hit a bum note or get tired – it is a perfectly balanced production. Rhode doesn’t rely on huge set-pieces or confusing interpretive dance on the RSC’s large thrust; what we get is well-thought out. Visually too, it’s a treat, on Lucy Osborne’s sparse but ingenious set, working perfectly in tandem with Matt Daw’s gorgeous lighting, illuminating a set of paper lanterns suspended from the ceiling to form some stunning visuals.



Not only that, this Dream leans heavily into the magical, fantastical element of the story using some simply divine illusion work, using technical trickery (designed by John Bulleid) just at the right moments where they properly fit in, but never becoming over-the-top or unnecessary. I truly wish I could tell you what will happen, but frankly it would do Bulleid’s work a disservice to spoil it here. You’ll just have to see it to find out.

 

It's spectacularly cast too. The obvious one to mention is Mathew Baynton as Bottom – he’s all over the marketing for a start – who is, expectedly, brilliant. Bringing us a top-class comedy performance in his arrogant-yet-lovable portrayal, he manages the role, being the butt of some of the jokes without falling into simple silliness, exquisitely. The cracking mechanicals all have their own times to shine too, with Helen Monks’ Quince, Emily Cundick’s Snout, Tom Xander’s Starveling and Mitesh Soni’s Flute forming a perfect ensemble. 



Soni mainly has the best material to work with, reluctantly having to perform the female lead of the play-within-a-play, and absolutely gets away with everything he does. From silly voices to madcap outfits, he revels in the chaos he gets to play in. And the play-within-a-play itself, in the final act of the show, is the best I’ve ever seen it done before – high-camp throughout and utterly hilarious. This is the epitome of modern-day Shakespeare reinvention if I’ve ever seen it.

 

In the courts of Athens, things fare similarly well. Bally Gill’s awkward, incompetent Theseus is an hilarious take I’ve not seen on the character before, while his serious wife-to-be Hippolyta, played by Sirine Saba, is brilliantly deadpan. As the story moves outside the city walls to the forest, where fairies belong, these two double-role into Oberon and Titania respectively, exploring interesting character parallels while also giving both performers a chance to demonstrate their range in the contrast of the two characters.



The four lovers form a tight quartet. There’s sincerity in Boudicea Ricketts’ discontented Helena, whose transformation throughout the plot into camp chaos is sublime. She’s matched by Ryan Hutton’s Lysander, who starts off not in love with her, falls in love with her, and then stops loving her (this is Shakespeare, of course it’s not a simple plot) exquisitely. Hutton is practically balletic in some of his moments, flinging himself and a rather majestic mullet around the stage in style. The two of them are excellently balanced by Dawn Sievewright and Nicholas Armfield as Hermia and Demetrius respectively.

 

But perhaps the most magic comes from Premi Tamang as Puck. Stepping into the role on press night due to the indisposition of Robin Sheehy, Tamang utterly nails the cheeky, mischievous role with a glimmer in her eye and a sly smile. It’s hard to imagine anyone improving on her performance.

 

I have had a most rare vision. Myself, I mean, not just because I’m quoting Bottom from the show. My most rare vision was this utterly spectacular production which truly makes Shakespeare feel as if it were written today. It’s high-camp Shakespeare for our times, directed skilfully and performed utterly marvellously. It would be quite a mistake to sleep on this one.

 

A Midsummer Night’s Dream plays at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre until 30th March 2024. Tickets from https://www.rsc.org.uk/a-midsummer-nights-dream/


Photos by Pamela Raith

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