A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a play that rarely works its magic on me. It’s hard not to find the lovers insipid, the gods arbitrary and vain, and the mechanicals—Bottom, Quince, and the rest—grossly condescended to. Any production that disabuses me of these views is all to the good. The best way is to make the lovers actually funny, but that rarely happens. And as for the humor of the mechanicals-as-thespians, well . . . can it ever be too broad? The production by the Bristol Old Vic, in association with Handspring Puppet Company, brought to New Haven as part of the International Festival of Arts & Ideas has the distinction of creating a workshop atmosphere in which the mechanicals dominate. Before the play even begins, Titania (Saskia Portway) stands on stage hammering away. The stage set (Fred Stacey, Andy Scrivens, Cliff Thorne) has great openness but also a dusty backstage feel that suits the production. We feel like we’re in the props room of a modern version of Athenian drama and that adds dimension to the play-within-a-play of Piramus and Thisbe that Quince (Colin Michael Carmichael) and company put on.
That aspect of the play—a farcical performance that nearly gets out of control—is quite inventive, with “Moonshine” (Jon Trenchard) perched on a ladder with a lit candle on his hat, and “Wall” (David Emmings) careening about the stage due to the top-heavy bricks affixed to his.
The intention of the Old Vic/Handspring production is to make puppetry intrinsic to the vision of the play. At times, this makes for striking effects—as when wood planks become musical instruments or a living forest or a walkway in space—and adds to liveliness when Quince starts handing out roles for the mechanicals’ play and Bottom (Miltos Yerolemou) disports with a large wooden beam, moving it about with a fluidity that is almost a special effect. And when he is “translated” into an ass, well…no spoilers from me, but it must be seen to be believed and, once seen, will always be remembered. Suffice to say he helms an amazing device that is both funny and grotesque.
Other puppetry moments produce more confusion than wonder. Why are the lovers puppets at times and at other times not? If that’s a too literal question, so be it. The program invites the audience to “suspend their disbelief”—something we do anyway when faced with a play featuring gods, Athenians, fairies, and nincompoops putting on a play, but when we also have to allow for puppets gripped like mini-me’s to this or that pining lover, it’s not so much a question of disbelief as of the meaning of the staging.
Such moments don’t intrude too much, and it’s easier to experience the enlivening aspect of puppetry when we see the fairies as an interesting collection of toys, found objects and moveable parts. Or when the gods disport giant heads and that fascinating big hand Oberon (David Ricardo Pearce) wields.
Among the lovers, Alex Felton as Lysander is the most amusing in his drastic change from adoring Hermia (Akiya Henry) to adoring Helena (Naomi Cranston), though Henry gets to bristle and make the most of her smaller stature (called for in the play) in lively physical comedy. Cranston’s Helena adopts the breathless delivery that is often the preferred manner of Brits doing the Bard. I would’ve appreciated more diction, less effusion in her speech to Hermia about their girlhood.
The best actor in the show is Yerolemou, who, besides hamming broadly as Bottom ("ham" and "bottom" being the key terms here), also gives greatly appreciated clarity to Egeus, Hermia’s fuming father. The disruption between Oberon and Titania (Saskia Portway) never felt particularly dramatic, but the interaction between the same two actors as Theseus and Hippolyta had much more feeling to recommend it.
The best aspect of the show are the visuals—set, lighting (Philip Gladwell) and the attention to movement (Andrew Dawson, Movement Director)—as well as the fascinating puppetry that could use a little tweaking to blend more seamlessly with Shakespeare’s somewhat hodgepodge play.
International Festival of Arts & Ideas presents
William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream A Bristol Old Vic production In associations with Handspring Puppet Company
Directed by Tom Morris Puppet Design, Fabrication, and Direction: Handspring Pupptet Company
Vicki Mortimer: Designer; Philip Gladwell: Lighting Designer; Dave Price: Composer; Christopher Shutt: Sound Designer; Andrew Dawson: Movement Director; Laurel Swift: Choreographer; James Bonas: Associate Director; Molly Einchcomb: Associate Designer; Katerina Hicken: Costume Supervisor; Joseph Wallace: Puppetry Associate
Performers; Saikat Ahamed, Colin Michael Carmichael, Naomi Cranston, David Emmings, Alex Felton, Fionn Gill, Akiya Henry, Kyle Lima, Saskia Portway, David Ricardo Pearce, Jon Trenchard, Miltos Yerolemou
June 15 & 18-22 at 8pm June 15, 16, 19, 22 & 23 at 2pm University Theatre Yale University