Justly world famous for its work on War Horse, the Handspring Puppet Company has joined forces again with director Tom Morris for a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream that visits the Barbican this week. But what to do with a play that contains a donkey instead of a horse? Handspring’s solution is so audacious it caused audible gasps from a school party in the audience. Joey the noble stallion, this ass ain’t. And, without spoiling the surprise, the ingenious and mischievous approach sums up the spirit of this superb production.
A transformed Bottom, performed superbly by Miltos Yerolemou, leads workmen looking a little like East End hipsters, who are the funniest I’ve seen. Fast and loose with the text, these joyous “hempen homespuns” are the flashiest point in a thoughtful show that reworks the play from the ground up with the puppetry provoking depth and insight. One note, this is a production that benefits from a close knowledge of the play – although the rewards are too numerous to make any excuse for this warning.
The puppeteer actors are tremendous. Of particular note are a hilarious Hermia (Akiya Henry) and the stunning Saskia Portway who takes on the roles of Hippolyta and Titania. But this is a true ensemble piece, with most of the cast on stage most of the time, and Morris ensures that the puppetry infuses rather then overpowers the show.
And yet the puppetry is revelatory. Simple materials belie Handspring’s ambition, a challenge to the audience, to see how minimal they can be. Puck is an assortment of objects, engendered by no fewer than three performers. Planks of wood are given life by the whole cast, like some giant Cornelia Parker sculpture, to form the forest outside Athens, making it a living character in the piece.
Introducing a sense of animism is the show’s master strategy. The idea that spirits inhabit all kinds of objects makes this fairy world more vivid than we are used to: a dangerous, serious place that is magical and mysteriously real. Fly to get a ticket.
Until 15 February 2014
Written 11 February 2014 for The London Magazine