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Last updated: September 18, 2013 5:20 pm
When Oberon greets Titania with the words “ill met by moonlight” he really means it: Michael Grandage’s new staging of A Midsummer Night’s Dream plays out before a huge summer moon which casts its silvery light and influence over the happenings in the forest. And happening is the word. Here the wood, always an alternative head space as well as a physical one in Shakespeare, is a crumbling ruin, home to a hippy crew of fairies – led by Sheridan Smith’s gorgeous, sensual, mischievous Titania – who have clearly turned on, tuned in and dropped out of starchy Athens society. Mortals who come into contact with them find their inhibitions loosened and their grasp of identity hazy – not least David Walliams’ fussily camp Bottom, who has a pretty spaced out time after a few deep drags on a spliff.
It makes sense: Grandage, inspired by events such as the Burning Man festival in the Nevada desert, draws a thread from Shakespeare’s great, magical, mysterious comedy through more recent examples of the continuing human impulse to explore the subconscious and the liminal, to escape the stifling conventions of the day and to connect with nature. Here the young lovers (Susannah Fielding, Katherine Kingsley, Sam Swainsbury and Stefano Braschi), demurely attired as if about to step out with Cliff Richard on a summer holiday, rebel and end up, disorientated, in the alternative camp, where their desires run riot and they blunder around in their nice white underwear. They are very funny, their messy, tear-stained fight the comic highlight of the evening. Their confusions, the easy sensuality of the fairies and the mechanicals’ camp and bumbling version of the Pyramus and Thisbe story all frame the play’s ambivalent exploration of the power of sexual attraction.
But for all this, there is something curiously lacking in this staging. It is performed at a tremendous pace, great in some respects, but oddly brisk and rushed at times. Richard Dempsey’s dapper Peter Quince and Walliams’ actor-laddie Bottom are precisely placed, but the other mechanicals get little look-in and Walliams’ camp take, though quite funny, is limited and lacks warmth or poignancy. There’s a peculiarly stiff performance from Pádraic Delaney as Oberon. Moreover there is something too deliberate about the whole show. It’s fun, but it does the equivalent of not inhaling. It touches on the deep themes in the play, yet doesn’t quite release its intoxicating comedy nor its unsettling, lingering power.
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