A perennial favourite, Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream is traditionally presented as a magical, romantic comedy. However, Joe Hill-Gibbins’ conspicuously dismal production at the Young Vic cares little for such frivolities.
The treatment of the text is fairly conservative, but there’s a subtle change in tone that refocuses the audiences’ attention on the play’s murky gender politics. Supernatural meddling still takes place, but romance is poisoned by possessiveness, and humour twisted to cynicism.
The most striking feature of this production is the stage itself. Rather than conventional boards, the actors tread, or rather trudge, through a pit of sodden turf. This makes an arresting first impression, providing simple props, which the actors craft as required, and allowing for some vigorous slapstick, with players flinging one another bodily to the soft ground.
It is not simply a wilfully absurd artistic decision either – in the text Titania complains of an empty sheep-pen in a flooded field, and says that, “The nine-men’s-morris is filled up with mud.” Nevertheless, it quickly becomes a distraction, as actors teeter, and the audience is left to wonder who, if anyone, will fall and what carnage may ensue.
One, but only one, of the fairies sings and moves ethereally, while the others clump about, hardly distinguishable from the humans. There are no sets to speak of, and actors remain on stage throughout; turning their backs, or sitting on a ledge like garden gnomes when not part of the action.
Anna Madeley’s Helena was a stand-out, her emotionally damaged dramatic moments matched by her fierce physicality in a knock-down, fight with Jemima Rooper’s Hermia.
The rude mechanicals also managed to wring distinctive personalities from small, and lightly sketched parts. Matthew Steer’s corduroy-clad Quince looks and acts like an earnest young geography teacher trying to manage an especially dim class, while Leo Bill's etiolated Bottom is apt to break into song (most memorably with an incongruous outburst of Aerosmith’s I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing). Their farcical play-within-a-play is perhaps the only truly enjoyable part of the production, though much of the humour is sneering or rooted in social awkwardness.
But while some individual elements are excellent, there is too much here that would not seem out of place in a student production (although a student production would probably have better costumes).
A potentially divisive take on the Bard; some will think it brilliant, others a dispiriting slog through the mud.