Friday, August 7, 2009

A Midsummer Night's Dream (Royal Shakespeare Company, fall 2008)

Director Gregory Doran brings imagination and ingenuity to A Midsummer Night’s Dream, in which characters are children lost in their id. Unfortunately, an absence of adults makes this a rather immature and shallow, if stunningly magical, production.

Francis O’Connor’s dark and beautiful design first catches the eye. At times illuminated by a huge moon, the mirrored wall and floor aptly distort their reflections. An orb, stained with craters, serves as another moon, its colors shifting throughout the production. From ephemeral smoke bubbles to levitating flowers, the special effects and props are also exquisite, contributing to the uncanny dream world.

Also successful are the grotesque plastic dolls which sometimes speak for the fairies in mechanical voices. These fairies, decked in black and pink, haunt much of the production and indeed make up the ill-behaved forest. Two of the most mesmerizing scenes in the play involve fairies either singing eerily or wielding comforting lights. Their eventual transformation into white angels coincides with the only moment in which they create harmony rather than mischief – the very end.

Fairy queen Titania (Andrea Harris) and king Oberon (Peter de Jersey) fight over an Indian baby, a puppet with blank but beautiful black eyes. Also wielded by the fairies, it is more effective than many child actors. Harris is a gorgeous Titania, and de Jersey’s melodramatic Oberon certainly conveys a ferocious and unearthly air. He first arrives growling in a terrifying swirl of mist and smoke.

In a brilliant decision, the king’s henchman Puck (Mark Hadfield) wears the legs and horns of a satyr, twitching his neck like a goat. While Hadfield speaks his lines too quickly, he brings a suitable darkness to the role.
At least in appearance, these goblins and gods would never be mistaken for humans. On the courtly side of the social scale (though characters rarely show any actual dignity), are the four lovers, blatantly differentiated through dress.

Natalie Walter is a suitably whiny and comedic if entirely obvious Helena, but she is surpassed by Kathryn Drysdale’s Hermia and Edward Bennett’s Demetrius. Drysdale gives diminutive Hermia the personality of a spoiled princess, fulfilling Helena’s description as little but fierce. Drysdale is believable throughout her performance, whether inducing laughs or turning on a dime to portray palpable pain. Bennett adds welcome subtlety to the production with immense, understated humor and ultimately, deep emotion. The four lovers’ fight scene, in which the mirrored floor adds to the confusion, is near perfection.

As for the rude mechanicals, their final play-within-the-play is duly amusing and creative and their props ingenious, but they hardly surpass pure clownishness. Joe Dixon’s sweet and simple Bottom is occasionally touching, particularly when he wakes from his dream. But his antics are so over-the-top, one wonders why his fellow players would look up to such a buffoon.

This Dream is a sweet sickness, a nightmarish playground in a glorious setting. Yet because the characters all convey a garish, childlike intensity, with little if any wisdom to be found, the lack of contrast makes this production grating at worst and entrancing at best – but never particularly moving.

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