The Watermill Ensemble’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a stylish, if not completely satisfying, take on the classic, enlivened with music from the likes of Nina Simone, Sam Cooke, Jay Hawkins and Rogers & Hart.
It’s easy to see why Dream is such a frequently staged show, even by Shakespeare standards – it’s so showily theatrical that it’s easy to ignore its fairly horrific gender politics. The best productions at least acknowledge these – even better, interrogate them – but director Paul Hart seems happy to leave the murky morals of the piece unexamined. This and the fact that none of the cast gel particularly well as couples – all are stronger on the comedy than the chemistry – makes for a fairly turgid first half, which feels like little but extended exposition.
It’s only when Puck’s mischief and mistakes take effect that the show really takes flight, and the second half is a much more buoyant affair, building to a deftly handled comedic finale – the players’ performance before the court is one of the highlights of the production (and one of the best versions I have seen), leaning full tilt into its absurdity.
The cast, too, flourish as they are freed from their straitened roles. Offue Okegbe is a dignified but forgettable Theseus – but steals his scenes as a put-upon actor, forced into service as a ‘wall’. Mike Slader’s Demetrius and Billy Postlethwaite’s Lysander are anaemic as suitors but, as rivals, handle the knockabout physical comedy with aplomb (think the Hugh Grant/Colin Firth fight scene in Bridget Jones). Robyn Sinclair and Lucy Keirl do the best they can with the always-thankless roles of Helena and Hermia, but Keirl clearly has much more fun as the players’ timorous lion.
Emma McDonald is a haughty Hippolyta and a sensuous Titania, who plays well off Emma Barclay’s delightful Bottom (now, there’s a sentence), though never quite convinces in her relationship with Jamie Satterthwaite’s charming Oberon, whose best scenes are with Molly Chesworth’s cheeky Puck. The ‘rude mechanicals’ in any given production can range from painfully unfunny to wildly hilarious, and while they get off to a slow start here, once the show gathers steam, they provide some of the show’s best moments, steered by Peter Mooney’s bumbling but optimistic Quince.
The musical numbers are done well, knowingly inserted but never too heavy-handed, and Katie Lias’ design emphasises the deliberate theatricality of the piece: its stylish shabby chic having the appearance of the rear of a stage-sets painted backdrops, so we could be looking out at the audience from the stage, a clever inversion that reflects the topsy-turvy themes of the play.
Although over-long – the production’s bold intentions could have been better served by some judicious trimming of the text – it saves the best till last, milking the players’ performance for every last laugh, and giving the cast the welcome chance to display their considerable comedic chops. The show ends on such a high note that its previous shortcomings, like Demetrius’ scorn and Oberon’s manipulations, are conveniently forgiven, sending us laughing into the night.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream plays at Northern Stage until 14th September, and tours the UK until 19th October. More info here.