When Shakespeare makes reference to the theatre, as he regularly does in this romantic comedy favourite, then the venue that bears his name has a head start. The welcoming vibe on Bankside is enhanced by the text, and director Sean Holmes takes full advantage of that. Theatregoers are embraced at every opportunity: a ramp to the stage breaks boundaries and one audience member a night is recruited to play a part (a nightmare for some, but there are few better ways to get a crowd clapping). It’s never nice to be a party pooper but, while the atmosphere is great, the production itself is uneven.
We’re off to a stilted start with Theseus and Hippolita, with an unfruitful take on their strange courtship. Doubling as the also battling fairy King and Queen doesn’t prove much happier for Peter Bourke and Victoria Elliott, who seem hampered by Jean Chan’s costumes (they are not the only ones). Bourke and Elliott work hard but their roles – and the questions of power that surround them – could be questioned more by Holmes. The characters end up lost.
The quartet of Athenian lovers who we follow also fail to excite. Despite command of the stage, from Amanda Wilkin in particular, their adventures in the woods fall flat. There are too many thrusts of the hips to get cheap laughs and too many lines lost in song. Overall, there’s little romance, sex or chemistry among any of the couples. Compared to Emma Rice’s production at the Globe in 2016, it all feels rather tame.
Still, there are plenty of ideas to enjoy. Some touches are neat – like the blowguns that send people to sleep. Some are sweet – they have a piñata! And some ideas are quite brilliant: having Puck played by the whole cast isn’t just practical, it makes for a brilliant final speech that pokes fun at actors fighting for lines. And I trust Puck’s T-shirt will be on sale soon. But other concepts feel misguided. This theatre hardly needs to emphasise Shakespeare’s globe-to-globe appeal (by the way, check out the forthcoming Shakespeare in Poland festival). But having cast members deliver some speeches in foreign languages doesn’t work, however admirable the motivation. While it’s intriguing to wonder what tongue is being spoken and why, it fights with accessibility – what if you’ve never seen the play before?
All questions are forgotten with the troop of tradesmen who put on their play-within-a-play at the finale. This is the funniest am-dram I’ve seen in a long while – full of spirit and superbly skilled at corralling the fun, including their conscript from the crowd. There’s the sweetest Snug you could wish for in Rachel Hannah Clarke – that she finds her roar is a delight. Nadine Higgin makes a Quince very much in control, to great comic effect, and her delivery of the prologue is fantastic.
Leading the crew is Jocelyn Jee Esien as Bottom, with a performance of such confidence it comes as a relief. This is the only role allowed to calm down at all, resulting in a character who is appealing as well as funny. It’s a shame that the show is only half a success, but it’s saved by the “rude mechanicals” who add real joy to the production.
Until 13 October 2019
Photo by Tristam Kenton