Theatre Critic and Journalist

Review: A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Lyric Hammersmith

Review: A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Lyric Hammersmith

The first thing to say about Filter’s remixed Midsummer Night’s Dream – and it cannot be said too loudly or too often – is that it is absolutely hysterical.

Every Dream has to contend with the fact that its bulk rarely matches the its final five minutes for incapacitating hilarity. Pyramus and Thisbe, the tacked-on play-within-a-play (in which Shakespeare pips Frayn to Noises Off) that’s performed with glorious ineptitude, is almost always the highlight. Recognising this, Filter and director Sean Holmes have reframed the whole thing as a similar shambles and extended its delirium throughout. The mechanicals have taken over the fairy kingdom.

They begin with a bungled introduction, forever drifting into tangents, from Ed Gaughan’s Oirish Peter Quince, who, in trying to summarise the play, ends up harpooning its prospects. “You’ll be wishing you’d gone to see One Man, Two Guv’nors with that bloke off of Gavin and Stacey,” he blusters.

Nor does it help that their Oscar-nominated special guest, set down for a one-off turn as Bottom, has become trapped in a lift backstage. Aside from being very funny, the eventual solution (which it would be unfair to reveal) wittily illuminates the presumptuous gall of Bottom’s taking charge.

But Bottom’s not alone in that. Here, every actor, believing he or she knows best, wrenches the play in a different direction. The lovers – polo-necked, tweedy thesps all – upstage one another, until there erupts a massive food-fight (bready-brawl is closer to the truth). Jonathan Broadbent’s Oberon, seemingly given free-reign in the wardrobe department, becomes a speccy superhero, while Ferdy Roberts makes Puck a disgruntled and tattooed techie with no patience for posturing. Lord, what fools these actors be. Most of them exit pursued by an irate stage manager.

If Filter’s dramaturgy looks incoherent, well, that’s the point. More problematic is the question of whether the play benefits from this theatrical metaphor. Of course, it’s not the first to use it, and Hyemi Shin’s papery design harks back to Peter Brook’s white box, but it goes further than ever before.

The answer is only in part. While it works wonders for both the dream motif and the fairies’ magical manipulation – allowing different layers of reality, whereby Puck stomps through the walls and Oberon sulkily protests his invisibility, to co-exist – Filter come close to reducing the whole to single moral: ‘Aren’t theatrical types pretentious knobs?’

Combined with their determination to avoid any obvious or recycled gags (those that we’ve seen a hundred times before, that still please nonetheless), there is a sour whiff of smugness here. It seems to say, ‘We know best,’ and that applies not only to other productions, but also to Shakespeare’s writing itself. Rather than cutting to refine, Filter have ripped out anything they deem outmoded or padding. In the process, they’ve removed a few vital organs. More than their brilliant and equally riotous Twelfth Night, this is Shakespeare for those who don’t do Shakespeare.

There are, inevitably perhaps, as many losses as there are gains. Just as we’re not bothered about the actual story of Pyramus and Thisbe, the plot here often feels like a chore. While set-piece moments and individual inventions –particularly their stock-in-trade use of sound – are as sparkling as they are surprising, we end up waiting for the next. There’s no care for the overall narrative and the careful balance of individual strands – not to mention pace and momentum – is upset by a tendency to digress.

The ultimate problem is that their thrills and laughter fade. Filter’s preference of a gag means that they surf through the play, moment by moment, but don’t really get underneath it. As such, the further I got from the theatre, the more I cheated I felt. For all the fun, there’s not much purpose, and the sense is of a company torn between populism and interrogation, forever succumbing to the former’s temptation. With the lighter comedies, that’s just about fine, but what we really need is Filter’s irreverent take on the big, weighty Shakespeares; the tragedies, histories and complex comedies. It can be done – look at Propellor – but until Filter commit to the whole, rather than the moment, that will remain beyond them.

Photograph: Keith Pattison

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