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The background phenomena – passing birds, aircraft and showers – can be a menace at the Open Air Theatre but, occasionally, they work in its favour. So it was on the opening night of this year’s Midsummer Night’s Dream. Ian Talbot’s Bottom, having executed a splendidly protracted death as Pyramus, lay writhing on the ground. “My soul is in the sky,” he cried, pointing heavenwards, and, bang on cue, a jet aircraft emitted an ear-piercing screech. Talbot, being the outgoing artistic director and a veteran Bottom, gamely followed the plane with his outstretched arm as the audience laughed.
His response was typical of a droll production that counts witty little insights among its strongest suits. The director Christopher Luscombe and his designer Janet Bird dress the play in late-Victorian garb, with the lovers trussed up in tight bodices and starched collars. When they run away to the wood, they do so equipped with all the paraphernalia of the travelling gentry: binoculars, maps and a flask. All four lovers are sweetly serious and silly. When Lysander and Hermia concoct their plan to run away, the on-stage violinists strike up to create suspense. When Lysander then reveals the plan to Helena, he turns to the musicians to urge them to play again. The mechanicals, too, are amusing and create a sense of camaraderie.
But in the thickets of the wood the production loses ground. The fairies here sport pastel togas. A programme note talks about the Victorian enthusiasm for classical antiquity as a mysterious, lost world, so this makes sense. But it’s hard to find these spirits unnerving. Even Richard Glaves’s Puck is pretty subdued. And this is the problem with the staging. It can’t change tack quickly enough to get near the troubling depths of this play, the “fierce vexation” of the dream. Tim Supple’s recent production pulled the audience into a world that was sultry and scary. This staging is charming, but too tame either to seduce or to scare you.
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