A Midsummer Night’s Dream in the midst of a torrential September should be a delicious thing: theatrical escapism in its purest form,a hallucinogenic haze of simmering heat, shimmering with magic and mayhem. It’s hard not to feel the loss, then, when Michael Grandage’s production of one of Shakespeare’s most popular plays does so little to raise the temperature.
Though the showy casting of Sheridan Smith and David Walliams won’t fail to draw a crowd, this surprisingly tepid outing swaps fairy frolics for straightforward and, at worst, outdated farce. Other productions may have treated the play as a playground: a hotbed for the investigation of gender roles, sexual liberation, class mobility. Grandage goes for tomfoolery in a forest, and if it’s a dream at all then it’s one of those anxiety dreams where everything conspires tragi-comically against you – all pratfalls and innuendo, under-dressed and somewhat over-done.
In Theseus’ gloomy palace (dull mirrors and duller talk) we have our turgid but necessary exposition of tangled love, crossed wires, the rights of the father and so on – perhaps we should be more grateful that this is all galloped through at breakneck speed. Despite the overhanging threat of the death penalty to be meted out on disobedient daughter Hermia, the only sense of impending doom seems to be that the audience might stop paying attention. There’s an almost desperate energy driving the action forward which betrays the fact that we are, all of us, simply waiting it out. Padriac Delaney’s Theseus has all the gravitas of a call-centre worker, able but strangely absent whilst Smith’s Hippolyta (a focus puller even though she’s little but set-dressing here) sympathetically rolls her eyes.
The young lovers are a sparky if barely delineated bunch, ricocheting between each other like charged particles. Discomfortingly though, Grandage’s take on the love-square feels somewhat lackluster in its lazy aping of gender stereotypes – the women wail, screech and throw themselves around, when they’re not being thrown around by the men. Boys don’t cry, of course – instead, male egos bristle, harmless as hedgehogs. We’re not meant to fall in love with the lovers, it seems, and so our hope turns to the fairy realm.
Into the forest we finally go, and someone’s put a wrecking ball through the mansion to reveal a woodland clearing turned cosmic blue beneath the gaze of a glorious and gargantuan moon. Christopher Oram’s set is wondrous, yes, but when we see the fairy revel is actually a badly-attended Full Moon party, that wonder dissipates, as if it’s already the morning after and we’re stone cold sober, seeing things for what they really are. There’s a lot of pot-smoking and orgiastic caressing, but any fairy-dust here has long been snorted by Titania’s ragged rabble. Gavin Fowler’s Puck is not so much a ‘mad spirit’ as a nearly burnt-out man-child, terminally bored rather than boisterous, carrying out his allotted tasks with all the enthusiasm of a freeloader who got himself a ‘job’ at the festival just for the ticket. Oberon and Titania’s quarrel reminds us of two rock stars secretly getting kicks from the heady dramatics of their ‘on-off’ affair, Titania flouncing about with her inane posse whilst Oberon hurls insults. They’re a drunk couple spitting the names of each other’s many lovers at each other with a gleeful erotically-charged fury.
Yet if lightness is all you’re looking for, there’s enough here to entertain. Sheridan Smith is infinitely watchable as Titania, even if her spaced-out Spice Girl get-up limits her beguiling glamour. Still, when she awakes from her enchanted slumber, all languid limbs and melting chocolate voice, she sets a match to the action, injecting a palpable heat. Whilst this is his Shakespearean debut, Walliams wrings more than just the expected laughs from the text. Though he doesn’t stray too far from his usual antics – his Bottom is essentially a collage of Little Britain favourites – he’s the only one really holding our attention, especially in the drawn out play-within-a-play. In a near-perfect scene, donkey-eared Bottom sprawls, surrounded by fairy attendants, and they all dissolve into dazed and drawling stoner laughter every time he repeats one of their ridiculous names, ‘Mustardseed?! Peaseblossom!?’ – these were unexpected moments of glory, a long-awaited transgression where the text was finally dragged, startled and sleepy, into the spotlight, becoming – momentarily – a living, breathing thing.
A perfunctory rather than perfect production, then – a must-see, I can’t help thinking, for high school students yet to feel energized by Shakespeare. Still, however sharp or endearingly silly it may be, there’s not enough glitter or darkness to either dazzle or wound us. Rather than real vibrancy, there’s drug taking and delirious dancing, which serves a rather staunch critique on current social culture perhaps, but I highly doubt that was Grandage’s intention. In the final moments, when Puck begs our pardon ‘if we shadows have offended..’, it’s a stark reminder of how unmoved we really are. Grandage’s stalwart fidelity to the text goes in hand in hand with a leaden, earth-bound kind of realism – a refusal to lose control, almost, an inability to dream.