From May 8th to 12th, Exeter Northcott was home to a raucous and outrageous adaptation of William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. From the Lyric Hammersmith Theatre and devising company Filter, this production, a revival of the adaptation first performed in London and Manchester, is currently being toured around the country with Exeter as their fifth stop.
Productions of Shakespeare’s classic plays that seek to radically alter and reinvent the typical performance, such as this one, are often faced with a lot of expectation. Stay too loyal to the source material and you are in danger of boring audiences with a performance that they have seen countless times before. Stray too far from the original structure of the play and you risk losing both the meaning and wit that Shakespeare’s works are full of. Fortunately, however, this adaptation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream perfectly balances these expectations in order to create a production that truly feels unique.
This 422-year-old tale of lost lovers and fighting fairies is revitalised through a thoroughly post-modern approach that sees the lines between actor and character; audience and company; and off-stage and on-stage broken down almost entirely. Though the narrative structure may remain similar, the production still manages to subvert audience expectation and thus create an experience that is both surprising and engaging. One of the biggest ways that the performance plays with the absurd and metadrama is through the complete lack of a fourth wall. Audience interaction plays a major role in this version, especially through the characters of Peter Quince and Bottom who interact with the audience almost as much as they interact with each other.
Though this may not sound like a completely revolutionary performance, Quince and Bottom do not simply break character to interact with audience, nor do they speak as characters fully immersed in the narrative world. Throughout the play they, and most other characters, are both character and actor simultaneously; it is Peter Quince who introduces the play to the audience and yet he is fully aware of the works of William Shakespeare and that the narrative he exists inside of is fictional. This style could have easily become confused or difficult to follow but the production handled it perfectly and built a sense of intimacy between the audience and the actors which only strengthened the comedy of the play.
The set design was another aspect that was so intrinsically linked to the show’s success and yet, at first, I thought it was going to be one of the production’s largest pitfalls. The set was largely minimalistic – featuring an archway under which musicians sat (the musicians being this adaptation’s stage-shy versions of the Mechanicals) and a ‘tiled’ bath, that resembled something you might find in an abandoned public toilet from the 60s (yellow stains and all). At start of the performance I was perplexed as to how they were going to fit this somewhat mid-century, industrial theme into the narrative of A Midsummer Night’s Dream – having seen a few adaptations of Shakespearean classics where an arbitrary change of setting is forced onto the narrative, I was worried this was an indicator that the performance wasn’t going to be great. However, as the hilariously absurd nature of the production became clearer, it also became obvious that the set was designed to add to the constructed madness.
The style seemed deliberately unconnected to anything else, simply functioning to set up and then subvert audience expectation. Additionally, the set pieces were used with effect to exaggerate the meta nature of the show, as characters were recurrently breaking through the paper screens rather used as walls on stage and back-stage action was even visible to the audience. These moments of apparent error provided great universal humour, enhancing Shakespeare’s already funny, although not perhaps readily understandable, piece of theatre.
In terms of the performances, there wasn’t a bad one throughout the entire play. All of the actors fully embraced the ridiculous nature of the performance and thus were able to deliver it with all the energy that it needed. There was excellent balance throughout: from the traditionally dramatic lovers, to the comically exasperated Quince, to the outlandish and zany fairies – all have their part to play. That being said, three characters emerge as stars: Quince, Puck and Oberon. The approach the production and the actors bring to these characters is so fresh and appealing that you can’t help but be captivated.
Overall, this performance was an absolute triumph and if the tour happens to making a stop in or near your hometown, I would definitely recommend you see it!
– Jonny McKinnell
Images from Exeter Northcott