By Cameron Yule
After a traumatic previous encounter with a student performance of Shakespeare, it was pleasing to be able to leave Tom Harper’s delightful production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream (presented by Castle Theatre Company as part of Durham Festival of the Arts, and performed in the equally delightful Fellows Garden at Castle) with renewed confidence in students’ ability to do justice to the English Language’s greatest playwright. As CTC’s touring play, this initial performance represented a test of the play’s viability in future picturesque settings, and Harper’s stripped-back vision for the play happily sets Shakespeare to the fore, letting the brilliance of the text (with a few, clever ornamentations) stand out.
In the absence of a stage, measures have been taken to create as immersive an experience as possible; therefore upon entering the Fellows Garden, the mechanicals are to be seen loitering in the bushes whilst an increasingly stressed Mistress Quince (a well-judged piece of gender-blind casting) shrieks at them for harassing the audience. Quince welcomed playgoers to ‘our play,’ and it reminds us of the meta-fictional concerns that pervade the play – and of the conflict between drama and reality.
Despite the production being undeniably enjoyable, it is worth airing a couple of reservations about the staging, that there was an occasional tendency for more softly-spoken characters’ lines to get lost amongst the background noise. Also questionable was the overindulgence in slapstick when presenting Lysander and Demetrius’ fight whilst Hermia and Helena argued: what initially seemed funny quickly lapsed into boorishness.
That said, these minor quibbles should not detract from the overall excellence of both the production and the cast. Amongst the lovers, standout performances came from Sarah Cameron as Hermia, and Tristan Robinson as Demetrius, who conveyed well their characters’ respective bewilderment and repressed passion. Adam Simpson, playing both Theseus and Oberon, was more convincing in the former role, whilst Theodore Holt-Bailey and Lucy Knight, Lysander and Helena respectively, proved more at home in comedic moments than in those of great emotion.
Undoubtedly, the production belonged to the mechanicals, who spent much of the play trying to steal the show from one another. Mike Bedigan as Bottom dominated the stage, giving us an excellent sense of Bottom’s self-importance and pretentiousness. Emily McClean was wonderfully incompetent as Mistress Quince, giving her character the air of stressed school teacher, brought out in her oversized glasses and extremely ill-fitting check blazer.
In ‘Pyramus and Thisbe,’ all the mechanicals showed an excellent understanding of their verse, with Nick Chapman, playing Snout, delivering a superb performance-within-a-performance as Wall, by paying particular emphasis to Shakespeare’s deliberately contrived couplets. Bedigan and Bróccán Tyzack-Carlin (Flute), milked their roles as Pyramus and Thisbe, and succeed in drawing as many laughs as possible from their ‘tragic’ deaths. It would also be remiss not to mention Hamish Lloyd Barnes as Snug, for his hysterical, not to mention onion-consuming antics – an inspired directorial touch from Harper. There is plenty of dramatical self-awareness, often to fully bring out the comedy, such as Quince’s announcement ‘anon comes Pyramus, sweet youth and tall,’ and the subsequent pause to allow us a cheeky laugh at Bedigan’s diminutive stature.
A Midsummer’s Night Dream as a text is a joy to read, and here it is treated with such care that it never, as Hazlitt once lamented, slips from ‘delightful fiction into dull pantomime.’ This is a production entirely at ease with itself, so much so that a closing rendition of ‘Why Do Fools Fall in Love’ almost feels part of the text, rather than an unseemly addition. A background dab from Bedigan in the final moments merely encapsulated the actors’ comfort in their roles, and far from being Shakespearean sacrilege, the dab signified all that made the production so entertaining and rewarding.
‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ will be performed in Fellows Garden, University College on Friday 16th June and Saturday 17th June at 14:30, with an additional performance at Ushaw College on Sunday 18th June at 13:30, before the show tours the UK this summer. Book your tickets here.
Photograph: Sam Harrison