Review by Matthew Taylor
It seems lazily convenient to say that “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” is one of the greatest plays by one of the greatest ever playwrights – but that’s not to say that Shakespeare can’t be done pretty terribly in the wrong hands. Amateur groups especially often rush at the lines, battering the language in a panic, overplaying the wrong bits and throwing away the stuff that makes the most sense. You probably won’t be entirely surprised though that, given my usual enthusiasm for the work of Pepper’s Ghost, none of that happened here!
I probably shouldn’t describe them as an ‘amateur’ theatre group either – not least because some of the actors on show are actually professionals! – this was not an ‘am-dram’ production. In fact I can’t remember the last time I saw an ‘am-dram’ production in Milton Keynes, even – and certainly not at MADCAP! This is dramatic work of a high standard (officially endorsed by the RSC no less, as part of their “Open Stages” project!) – and despite my weary eyes I was swept up from the outset, never once feeling the need to look at my watch! (High praise indeed from me in a three-hour play!)
An interesting feature was that although I’ve now seen at least five productions of MND in my lifetime that I can remember, I have never yet seen a version where the Lovers steal the show! Usually it’s the sexy otherworldliness of the Fairies or the knockabout comedy of the Rude Mechanicals which you come away with ringing in your brain – and though both of those sets were very good too, the four Lovers ( Chris Szuca, Ciaran Lonsdale, Christina Chessa and especially Jade Gray as Helena) were all excellent. Much funnier and with better chemistry between them than in any other performance of this play I’ve come across.
Intriguingly for a show at MADCAP the production was set in the round, with no rake and some well-placed chairs and bits of stage blocks allowing the characters to pretty much join the audience at times. For example, when Titania was revelling in her love for Bottom at the start of the second half, I was close enough to the action to smell the hairspray of her henchfairies! I could have tickled Bottom as he slept... but I didn’t. The whole space was transformed into the world of the play – the intricate set and lighting both also helping to transport You The Audience directly to the forest outside Athens.
It’s never fair with such a strong cast - and always subjective - to single out performers for praise, but I would like to quickly mention the performances of some of the Rude Mechanicals, especially Bill Handley as Bottom. I’ve seen him in smaller roles in several previous Pepper’s Ghost shows, but he seemed ready-made for this character: gurning, hamming and generally showing off as the buffoonish weaver should. Tony Ffitch provided a great long-suffering foil for him as Peter Quince, and I was also delighted to see Tim Dalgleish show his range playing two characters that couldn’t be more different: the uptight, pompous Egeus and the childishly enthusiastic Snout The Tinker.
What else was there? Dancing – some oddly formal courtly dancing from the Fairies totally overshadowed by the bewildered Morris Dancing of the Rude Mechanicals. With joy, confusion and in some cases terror plastered across their faces you couldn’t do anything else but grin at the sight. And special effects! – the play closes with Puck’s famous “if we shadows have offended” speech, after which s/he blows a fountain of glitter up into the air as the lights cut out.
It was a magical end to a magical show. If indeed t’were a dream, it was a most happy one.