The eye-catching name here is Phill Jupitus: the popular comedian playing the stage-struck weaver who ends up making an ass of himself with the fairy queen. His is a good and appealing Bottom, though not a vintage one — which is pretty much true of the production as a whole. Laurence Boswell’s clear, fleet-footed, modern-dress staging has some wonderful passages — the lovers’ fight in the woods and the final play-within-a-play are both eye-wateringly funny — but equally some tepid ones. There is a warmth and approachability to it that ultimately draws the wonder out of Shakespeare’s richly-layered comedy.
Athens here is a stiff, sterile place, represented by Jamie Vartan’s abstract white box of a set: so pristine you wouldn’t dare to drop a crumb on it, never mind defy your father’s wishes. There’s an authoritarian, military feel to the space: Darrell D’Silva’s Theseus has strange insignia on his clothes, Egeus (Forbes Masson) has a chest bristling with medals and his chosen son-in-law, Demetrius (Wilf Scolding), likewise wears an impressive array of brass on his jacket.
It’s a staging that brings out the repeated patterns, through the play of rules and transgression, of patriarchy defied. Katy Stephens’ Hippolyta looks aghast as Theseus spells out the cruel options to Eve Ponsonby’s feisty, disobedient Hermia. D’Silva and Stephens bring the echoes of this hostility into their doubling as Oberon and Titania, with Stephens’ beguiling yet fierce fairy queen roundly rebuffing D’Silva.
And the production revels in the undercurrents of desire that threaten to bust open the chaste white enclosure. The four lovers are sweet, sexy and self-absorbed as they give rein in the woods to their buried lust: Maya Wasowicz’s demure Helen is soon straddling Demetrius and urging him to whip her, while William Postlethwaite’s self-consciously hip Lysander trips over his own jeans in his hurry to rip them off. Their journeys are traced with comic skill, but also emotional clarity.
Less successful are the fairies, daubed in blue paint and writhing in loincloths. Simon Gregor’s Puck is a little blue goblin, catching the character’s unsettling amorality but lacking in mischievous charisma. Still, the production winds up to a great finish, with the mechanicals delightful in their command performance. In Jupitus’s hands there’s an innocence to Bottom’s boastfulness, while Oscar Batterham’s excellent Thisbe manages to be both utterly ridiculous and curiously poignant, so distilling the play’s brilliant understanding of human contrariness.
To August 20, theatreroyal.org.uk
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