Rae McKen’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream addresses its target audience directly, placing the play within a framing device set in a modern day classroom. As a group of assorted school stereotypes assembles for detention, their velvet-jacketed teacher ‘Mr Goodfellow’ enters the room and hands out copies of Dream. Faced with the initial reluctance of the group to engage, Goodfellow begins clicking his fingers, at which the students take on the roles and slip seamlessly into the play.
It’s a device that bears no relevance to the main body of the play and the classroom isn’t really referenced again in what is otherwise a very traditional take on Shakespeare’s play. Against a dappled backdrop of tall trees, and in a ‘forest’ populated by vertical poles from which fairies hang, the small company performs the text at high speed to bring in their school-friendly production at a hair over two hours. With eight actors doubling, there are a number of clunky interventions to explain certain lacunae: ‘Starveling’ fails to turn up for rehearsal, and his non-appearance at the Mechanicals’ performance prompts Snout to perform double duty as Wall and Moonshine, and the lovers are required to vacate the stage in order to return to perform Pyramus and Thisbe.
All of this does demand a high level of energy from the performers, and this is sustained throughout. Once in the forest, events move at a tremendous lick. Puck appears chatting to a pool of light, which speaks as a pre-recorded chorus of voices to stand for the fairies, and Oberon and Titania arrive without retinues, allowing the three actors to race through the establishing scenes as quickly as possible. The production’s biggest problem is the treatment throughout of the text as something to be got out of the way. This is at its worst in moments such as Titania’s reawakening where no breath is left for reaction as she sees Bottom with sober eyes for the first time. The sacrifice made in the service of pace is at the cost of subtlety, reflection and variation of tone.
What the instance on speed does allow for is more physical comedy, particularly between the four lovers. Rebecca Loudon as Helena stands out here, moving from desperate supplication (including, rather problematically, embracing Demetrius as he threatened to assault her, causing him to collapse on top of her in exasperation) to a feisty confidence as the confusions reach their peak. If the production can be seen to have a unifying theme, it is of the importance of growing up, but the main action revels in its childishness, whether Hermia wrapping herself around Lysander’s legs until she slides gracelessly down to his feet, or Demetrius and Lysander squeezing their cheeks together as they march out to duel. There is little in the way of originality in these slapstick scenes, but the energetic physicality does at least amplify the frenetic confusion.
There is more invention in the presentation of the Mechanicals, with Loudon again excelling as a hyperactive Quince attempting to direct their interlude. Here, the childish humour fits better as characters talk over one another or as Bottom repeatedly and accidentally barges his fellows out of the way. Lots of points of interest are set up: Quince and Snout bristle with sexual tension, Snug gives a comically diffident performance, and Flute, initially shambling in hoodie and tracksuit trousers, turns up for the final scene in full drag including death-defying heels. Their ‘Pyramus and Thisbe’ takes up the whole stage, with Theseus and Hippolyta descending into the audience, and the company rattling through the jokes with an earnest desire to please.
Quite why the company chose their particular framing device remains unclear, and the magical manipulation of his actors places ‘Mr Goodfellow’ in a rather odd position, an inspirational teacher who appears to be teaching his children nothing but using them as puppets. Perhaps most disappointingly, this is a Dream that seems to have almost no interest in the play itself, throwing away the language and the tensions of the forest in favour of a breakneck romp through the more obvious comic set pieces and easy jokes. If this play is, as the framing device suggests, to be positioned as an educational or even redemptive piece, then it needs to have much more to offer.