The reunion of the team behind the staging of War Horse – director Tom Morris and the Cape Town-based Handspring Puppet Company – is a big deal, but this is deliberately a much less polished affair than that international sensation. For Shakespeare’s comedy of lovers, fairies and a big ass, Morris and designer Vicki Mortimer have chosen a workshop aesthetic – in the literal, rude-mechanicals sense. Even the nobles are dressed in robust, well-worn shirts and trousers. And instead of huge, complexly articulated wood-and-leather equine figures as in War Horse, most of the puppetry here involves quasi-found objects, and most of those are mere planks of wood. The crucial element here is the imagination, working from bare basics to conjure, for instance, Puck out of a basket and a hand-saw. The supernatural can be found anywhere, the marvellous amid the everyday.
Interestingly, the very opposite occurs with the young lovers. Perhaps the idea is that in love we are at our most definitively human, but the upshot is that the more intense these characters’ feelings grow, the more the actors abandon their half-metre-high wooden Mini-Me’s and get into the thick of it themselves. It unravels the puppetry business slightly. In contrast, the mechanicals’ dramatic presentation overplays things with figures crudely hacked from wooden blocks and a vague “holy theatre” air reminiscent of the Polish Wierszalin company, whom Morris and I saw on several 1990s Edinburgh Fringes.
So the wonder works only partially, and the sexual tension rather less: the proceedings feel almost chaste. Chaste yet really, really dirty. This is among the two or three most gleefully vulgar Dreams I have seen, centring naturally on Miltos Yerolemou’s Bottom. Yerolemou is one of the UK’s finest and most underrated clowning actors, who happily throws his whole being into ridiculousness. Suffice to say that Bottom’s transformation here turns him upside-down and involves semi-nudity, such that Titania literally loves an ass. When other strands sag, the comedy remains taut, with the likes of Colin Michael Carmichael excellent as the put-upon Peter Quince, and Akiya Henry’s Hermia surpassing fine as she grows sensitive about her short stature. Not always magical, then (and in a bold move, Morris even cuts Puck’s epilogue), but funny, filthy and consistently watchable, not least for its bare-faced cheek(s).