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As part of a brief season in the Cube, a temporary studio venue erected within the Royal Shakespeare Theatre before it closes altogether for rebuilding, the RSC has commissioned this “response” by Rona Munro to A Midsummer Night’s Dream. It’s the kind of play that David Rudkin did extremely well in the 1970s, but was seen as eccentric at best: a collision of modern and immemorial, worldly and mystical, specific and archetypal. In this case, a series of misfortunes blighting the construction of executive housing on top of some ancient woodland seem to be linked to a mysterious boy who is eventually captured and institutionalised. However, the building developer himself seems an odd fish, interfering to try to rescue the consultant psychiatrist’s failing marriage …
Munro cannily does not impose a single fixed set of correspondences between characters. Developer Peter Fellows (Christopher Fulford) is a version of Shakespeare’s Peter Quince when ordering around Bricks, Sparks and Chippy, the “rude mechanicals”, but is more like Puck when trying to sort out people’s love lives and just making them worse. Colin Salmon’s authoritative doctor is Oberon when arguing with his postgrad-student wife about who should have more access to the Indian boy (aha!), but is Egeus when trying to stifle his own teenage daughter’s interest in this strange lad, who does not speak but seems deeply connected with the forces of nature. Resonances tinkle throughout, like a set of wind chimes rather than an identifiable melody.
Especially in the second half, with the chaos escalating just as in that other wood in Shakespeare’s play, it could easily become ridiculous. In fact, it frequently does, but it also shows a disarmingly wry self-awareness. (The original is a comedy, after all.) Chippy the joiner explains his distraction by saying: “I’ve had to take to the whisky again; once you let words such as “elf” and “fairy” out of your mouth, there’s no other option.” Fellows keeps bathetically paraphrasing Puck’s attitudes to the romantic confusion: “This is a mistake; I’ll fix it”, or “Nothing I do works!” Rebecca Gatward’s production largely succeeds in invoking ambivalent nature spirits into the bare white cage of the playing space. The result will not be to everyone’s taste, but the unfashionableness of work like this is surely unfair. It reminds me that the first play I ever saw, as a schoolboy, in the old Other Place in Stratford, was David Rudkin’s version of Hansel and Gretel.
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