Traditionalists, look away now – the new Ev’s second Shakespearean outing is certainly determined to stand out from the crowd. A Midsummer Night’s Dream is probably one of the Bard’s best-known and most ubiquitous plays; and with this production, new associate director Nick Bagnall puts a bold stamp on things. Attracted more to the darkness in the story than the ethereal, light-hearted mischief that might automatically spring to mind, it is a highly-stylised, ballsy and intense show.
The play has three main plotlines that converge one one night in one forest – the fates of the four young lovers Helena, Hermia, Lysander and Demetrius; the turbulent, passionate relationship between the fairy king and queen, Titania and Oberon; and the preparations of a hapless band of players, the Rude Mechanicals, readying themselves to perform at the upcoming royal wedding feast of Theseus and Hippolata. Watching all these strands unfold – and interfering with magic where required – is fairy Puck. A stroke of luck for a humble regional theatre, West End rising star Cynthia Erivo took on this role shortly before being announced as the lead in the new Broadway production of The Color Purple. Erivo has an incredible stage presence and plays Puck with style and intensity. This is a great opportunity to see an intimate performance from someone who will very likely go a long way.
There’s no cardboard cut-out trees and fairy wings for designer Ashley Martin-Davis, who creates a sharp, shiny, shadowy world of contrasts on the Everyman stage. A strong black, white and grey colour scheme of contemporary costumes is rudely interupted by the, erm, Rude Mechanicals in dayglo orange overalls. Titiana literally dazzles in a figure-hugging sequined gown that RuPaul would kill for; a mirrored backdrop reflects the audience around the thrust stage back at itself. The forest fills the stage with white paper, the fairies are covered head to toe in black.They perform original songs, too, but something is lost by not able to see their faces. These disorienting tricks create a forest more Blair Witch than Rivendell.
It looks intriguing and certainly has wow moments, but there’s an aggression to the interpretation that never seems particularly good humoured. Compared to the joyful openness of Gemma Bodinetz’s Twelfth Night (exactly a year ago), this Shakespeare comedy feels quite cold and demanding, and leaves cast members struggling to stand out.
The Rude Mechanicals steal the show, as they are wont to do in any production; then as Bottom, Dean Nolan clean runs away with it. Larger than life and channelling an inner hybrid of Brian Blessed and Jack Black, his performance is boisterous, confident enough to ad lib, and hugely entertaining. Andrew Schofield’s vaudevillian chops make for a good Peter Quince, and Lewis Bray rises to the challenge as the confused – but ultimately game – Francis Flute, who ends up in the female role of their play.
The crescendo of the final scene is a visual delight, with music and movement used to especially good effect.