Our annual visit to Oxford to see the Oxford Shakespeare Company at Wadham College was a bit late this year – all that rain in July doesn’t make you want to sit in the wet watching rude mechanicals, no matter how entertaining they are. Then came the Olympics so everything else got put on hold. But fortunately, the sun came out and the rain went away for last Saturday so Mrs Chrisparkle and I were able to gather together a party of seven, including Lady Duncansby and our nieces, Secret Agent Code November and Special Agent Code Sierra (plus their mum and dad) to stake our place in the front row for the matinee of A Midsummer Night’s Dream directed by Gemma Fairlie. This is the second time that the OSC has staged Dream, the first being a few years ago now, but this is a completely different production, less ethereal and more farcical.
It’s such a privilege to spend an afternoon with picnic and Pinot watching the Bard brought alive with some modern tricks in a contemporary setting. This Theseus is the Head of an Oxford College, and Hermia, Lysander, Helena and Demetrius are undergraduates. The first line has Theseus on his mobile complaining about bikes parked in the wrong place (“I don’t care if they do belong to Chris Hoy and Bradley Wiggins, get them moved!”) and so if you’re the kind of purist who doesn’t appreciate that kind of addition to the text, you might find this production a bit of a challenge. But I always say that a modern version doesn’t rewrite the original, and I’m always up for a jazzy version of Shakespeare.
The first couple of scenes are actually played in promenade, so we all left our hard fought-for seats and went to the garden entrance to see Theseus in a tizzy and Lysander proposing to Hermia, whilst Helena ham-fistedly spies on them from behind a bush. There’s absolutely no denying this production of Dream is played to get the maximum laughs available – and it really succeeds. Bottom – this time a gardener and not a weaver – arrives and encourages us to another part of the garden where he and Peter Quince start dividing up the parts for Pyramus and Thisbe. There don’t appear to be any other members of their troupe so audience members are approached to be Flute and Snout – but don’t worry, you don’t have to do anything if you are chosen; it’s just a good excuse for a bit of jolly banter. Mind you, later on two audience members were chosen to play the lion and the moonshine, and the laughter of the little girl playing the moon almost stole the show!
By the time Puck has enticed us back to our seats (where we stay for the rest of the show) any barrier that might have existed between audience and cast has been well and truly broken. What then comes over particularly well with this production is its high level of active physical comedy. As usual a number of the roles are doubled up – and in the case of Antony Jardine, tripled up, with the result that he’s barely ever off stage. His Theseus marks the bookends at the beginning and end of the play, but he’s also Quince – who himself doubles up as Flute, playing Thisbe – and also Oberon; and he tackles all of these roles with great verve and humour. I don’t know how he manages all the costume changes. Also responsible for a lot of very funny horseplay are Andrew Venning as Lysander and Alexander McWilliam as Demetrius, who basically fight like girls, do excellent po-faced sincerity at the behest of Hermia or Helena, or neither, or both; roll around in the grass a lot and attack the physical comedy head on. How can Demetrius resenting having his hair ruffled be so funny? There’s a scene where Oberon, who has the ability to charm anyone to sleep or awakeness with a beckoning of his hand, casts a spell on Demetrius by rubbing his big toe on either side of Demetrius’ cheeks. Mr Jardine must have been in a mischievous mood for the last Saturday matinee of the run – I don’t think Demetrius was expecting Oberon to rub the full length of the underneath of his foot right down the centre of Demetrius’ face so that the poor stunned Mr McWilliam was effectively podiatrically violated in the cause of comedy – fair play, he just managed to keep a straight face.
Rebecca Naylor’s Helena is a comedy sensation; with her secretary glasses and attractively gawky presence, she turns in a beautiful performance that encompasses down-trodden lovelorn to unwilling dominatrix and she is very funny. Rachael Henley’s Hermia is suitably more straightforward, but with a touch of the Catherine Tate’s Lauren about her and Helen Bang makes a very classy Titania/Hippolyta. Mark Pearce is great as Bottom – his clowning is nicely underplayed and his backchat with the audience emphasises the artificiality of the situation. Hiran Abeysekera’s Puck has a great vocal range and is really well cast, looking like a diminutive sprite with a penchant for mischief. You share in his enjoyment of the farcical, and you feel sorry for him when he is criticised. I suspect Mr Abeysekera may well have a very good future in the theatre.
The play has been quite heavily cut in parts – which makes sense with a production lacking a number of the minor characters. However I did get a bit irked by the fact that Titania kept on referring to her fairy companions when there weren’t any – I rather wish those lines had been cut too. A minor detail. You won’t come away from this Midsummer Night’s Dream with a deeper understanding of its central themes of love and marriage, abuse of authority, identity and imagination; but you will remember scene after scene packed with laughs and inventive comedy. It’s an excellent production to mark the Oxford Shakespeare Company’s tenth anniversary, and the audience loved it.