Shakespeare in leather just doesn't rock
STRATFORD–I don't care how many productions of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream you've seen, I can almost guarantee that you never witnessed anything quite like the one that has just opened at the Stratford Festival.
Debuting British director David Grindley arrives here with an impressive résumé but he's managed to turn this Dream into a nightmare, successfully squeezing every ounce of magic out of the play in favour of a grotesque hard-rock sensibility. The fairies – male and female – are all leather and tattoos, Puck is a posing, prancing Ozzy Osbourne while Titania obviously goes to the same hairstylist as Amy Winehouse.
The play opens with stutters of gunfire and the heavy hand of a totalitarian regime. The costumes at the Duke of Athens' court establish that we are in the 1950s (how this meshes with the heavy-metal fairies later on is anyone's guess). From this the familiar story unfolds, with the four lovers deciding to flee to those nearby Grecian woods to escape parental tyranny.
While fairy lights and gossamer wings have long since gone out of fashion, the woods are usually seen as a magical "other" place of transformation and healing. It isn't a comfortable spot, to be sure; the young lovers are stripped of illusions along with some of their clothes. On the other hand, it's surely not meant to be Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? with the so-called lovers snarling and tearing lumps out of each other.
Laura Condlin (Helena), Bruce Godfree (Lysander), Ian Lake (Demetrius) and Sophia Walker (Hermia) are the unlucky ones called on to play George and Martha go hiking. They deserve better, particularly Walker, who shows flashes of real charm.
Juxtaposed against this story, of course, is that of the Rude Mechanicals, who are busy rehearsing a play they hope to showcase before the Duke of Athens. And one of the few good things about this production is Geraint Wyn Davies as Bottom the weaver. This is a loquacious Welshman, an innocent, take-charge kind of guy who is visibly bewildered at his good fortune when he lands in bed with the Queen of the Fairies. Aided and abetted by the other Mechanicals (notably Michael Spencer-Davis as Quince), Wyn Davies also manages to be extremely funny.
The other positive is Yanna McIntosh's Titania – wily, passionate and seductive. She and Timothy D. Stickney are the only two who seem really comfortable with the poetry; too many of the others lapse into a jog-trot style of delivery.
Tom Rooney's Puck is a strange, androgynous presence; rather than relying on conjuring, he uses props such as a watering can and a portable dry ice machine to bring discomfort to the foolish mortals around him.
Designer Jonathan Fensom's coup de theatre is to have the front part of the famous balcony break off and plunge into the stage where it sticks up like a huge arrowhead for most of the play. It's a chandelier moment; the only problem is that it severely restricts the free flow of movement around the stage.
Add to this the fact that Grindley, like many visiting directors, has yet to come to terms with the intricacies of a thrust stage. Quite often, people end up delivering speeches with their backs to the audience.
And a pair of shoes as ears plus a set of false teeth for Bottom's donkey getup? Where's the magic in that?
It's hard to fathom what Grindley wants to say through the play. Why the different, jarring time frames? And why fairies as rock stars? After all, this is Greece, not Grease.
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