Deep in the forest there are dark things: horned half-men and furry beasts, creatures of English myth. Dominic Dromgoole’s production is populated by animalistic fairies with antler crowns, green men and women, wreathed in leaves and daubed with earth. There’s a carnality to them too, these creatures; Titania’s desire for Bottom is hot and hungry – you can almost see the steam rising – while the bare-chested Oberon will occasionally envelop his Puck in a long, lingering embrace.
The forest seems to taint the four young lovers too, creeping around their ankles like ivy, encircling them. Each time they appear on stage, they have shed one more layer of finery; their shirts come untucked and their stockings straggle, their faces become increasingly caked in dirt. The forest infects them and there becomes less and less to distinguish them from the fairy folk.
This sense of pastoral unease is off-set by the broadly comic mechanicals scenes. They’re first seen tip-tap their way onto the stage in a kind of clog dance (a recurring device). Pearce Quigley’s magnificent Bottom manages to be both gentle and understated in his delivery while simultaneously stealing every scene he’s in like a child scrumping apples. His is a melancholic Bottom, though also rather vain and touchy, prone to strops. He makes a show of never remembering Peter Quince’s name and likewise refers to the play they are putting on as the tragedy of Pyramus and Thingy. The final performance of the play, in all its tragical mirth, sees the company erect a teeny theatre, a kind of rickety mini-Globe onto which they all cram, a structure which requires regular mid-scene repairs, the stage hand slithering between Bottom’s legs as he attempts to address his chink.
Michelle Terry is a lustful, rich-voiced Titania but also an intriguing Hippolyta, full of ambivalence for Theseus, shrinking from his touch and enjoying the disruptive antics of the mechanicals rather too much (there’s also a fascinating essay by Terry on Hippolyta and the Amazons in the programme, which is well worth reading). John Light is a bounding, bearded Oberon, clambering about the stage and swinging from its pillars, while Matthew Tennyson’s Puck is lanky and somewhat adolescent in energy, his sudden fits of energy giving in to shoulder-shrugs and inattentive yawns, a creature in need of distraction. Luke Thompson, making his professional debut as Lysander, stands out among the love-struck quartet, consumed by this sudden surge of new feeling, grinning like a little boy.
While the comic scenes are a source of revelry with every potential joke sniffed out and made much of, with each mechanical granted their moment, whether it be the wall’s trousers escaping or Bottom’s inability to remember his lines, the Pyramus and Thisbe sequence does feel rather over-extended. Though the laughs duly come, there are times when the jokes feel laboured and you can practically see the performers striving and straining, steering the play away from the twilight magic of some of the earlier scenes in the process. Though there are some pleasing subversions, particularly the way the company approaches the final, almost obligatory, jig, Dromgoole’s production is most potent when evoking a sense of mystical menace, the forest not as lovers’ playground but as a world of hunter and hunted.