“I shall do thee mischief in the wood…
‘Ay, in the town, in the temple…’”
Last July’s Romeo and Juliet at the Actors Church in Covent Garden was a real unexpected surprise in a summer that was full of productions of that play, site-specific theatre that genuinely worked with the idiosyncrasies of the venue and able to exploit them to their full advantage. This year Iris Theatre are putting on A Midsummer Night’s Dream as their main production for the summer, an early showing of which I caught this week, to see whether the magic could be recaptured with this, my most favourite of Shakespeare’s plays.
The venue is St Pauls Church, right in the middle of Covent Garden with its own secluded courtyard filled with trees and shrubbery, which lends itself well to the evocation of the Forest of Arden: Dan Winder’s fluid production places a strong connection with nature front and centre so that the fairies are closer to woodland sprites than the ballet-dressed moppets of old, fitting in perfectly to the grassy knolls, wildflower-strewn groves and secluded bowers, the steps of the church creating a more stately locations where needed. The audience follows the action around the grounds, though there’s only perhaps 2 moves in each half and there’s sufficient room for everyone at each place, sitting or standing – something which is not always the case in promenade productions.
Few people would pick this play as their favourite, at least that’s how it seems, but as the first Shakespeare I ever read and one of the first I saw performed, it holds a most affectionate place in my heart and I continue to genuinely love its mix of lovers, mechanicals and fairies. I was most impressed with an interpretative conceit which although leaving me puzzled at the very beginning, put a completely different spin on things at the end: it may be something that more experienced eyes have seen before, but I loved the way they flipped it, giving some interesting takes on this most familiar text: Puck’s final coda is giving extra meaning, Oberon’s “I know a bank where the wild thyme grows…” becomes a teasing bribe, there’s something of a freshness that sits alongside the traditional here in an easy blend.
Performances are strong across the board, but David Baynes’ Puck is a hyperactive, manic giggling presence that ought not to work but is wickedly endearing, especially when with Peter Manchester’s paternal Oberon, and Baynes’ works extremely hard, doubling up as a powerful Theseus too. Laura Wickham is a class above with her natural, witty, self-possessed Hermia, Lois Baldry as Helena is saddled with the dual baggage of one of the worst dresses in the history of mankind and my residual memories of Rachael Stirling at the Rose in one of the best acting performances I have ever seen in my life. But altogether the lovers combined to great effect with some brilliantly convincing slaps and ridiculous fight scenes between Ben Crystal and Andrew Mullan as Demetrius and Lysander, both excellent at shifting from the slightly stuffy suitors of the beginning to lovers of reckless abandon once dosed up by Puck.
Not everything works: just small things like Oberon’s post-interval song is too long and seemingly without purpose, some of the fairies’ movement is just plain odd and Titania and Oberon’s reunification dance feels misjudged. Eschewing the traditional doubling of the Athenian and fairy nobility exposes how small a part Titania actually is and so it was a shame we saw so little of Diana Kashlan who promised much. And, something I didn’t remember from last year, there are too many moments where the actors are competing with the amplified turns going on in Covent Garden itself, the sound threatening to overpower the acting and coming close to wrecking the mood.
But there is much that is pleasurable, not least in the bumbling antics of the rude mechanicals and their play which usually guarantees a strongly funny ending, Matthew Mellalieu as Bottom and John Harwood’s Peter Quince shining here, the little bit of audience participation was great fun and perfect for families with slightly more adventurous young’uns. The uniqueness of the venue in central London makes for a different kind of experience available for all in the middle of town, ideal for families yes, but some clever work making this an interesting production for the Shakespeare fan as well.