A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Michael Grandage Company) runs at the Noel Coward Theatre on the West End from September 7 – November 16 2013. By William Shakespeare, directed by Michael Grandage.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream is arguably Shakespeare’s fluffiest play. It’s insubstantial, like fairy floss – glimmering gossamer strung together by a thin plot and some good jokes. The Michael Grandage Company’s production of this at the Noel Coward Theatre on the West End beautifully realises the play’s dreamlike qualities. The scenes with the fairies are gorgeous. But I can’t help wondering whether the way they’ve treated the human characters exposes some darknesses that maybe should be left uncovered.
We all know the plot. The bit I’m especially interested in here is the quartet of four human lovers, Hermia (Susannah Fielding), Helena (Katherine Kingsley), Lysander (Sam Swainsbury), and Demetrius (Stefano Braschi). Lysander loves Hermia. Hermia loves Lysander. But Demetrius also loves Hermia (and has her father’s blessing to marry her), despite the fact that he’s basically being stalked by another woman, Helena. There’s some wacky shenanigans in the woods on a midsummer’s night where Demetrius and Lysander find them both magically compelled to love Helena, leaving Hermia totally bereft, but then eventually Lysander is cured and everyone pairs up and lives happily ever after blissful monogamy. Right? Right.
The bit that worries me isn’t so much that Demetrius is forced to love Helena, his personality essentially changed, and no one really seems to care. (I mean, obviously this is problematic, but treating this text too seriously will leave you in a world of pain.) The problem I have is the way that this particular production seems to equate love and sex. It starts off with Helena. In her pursuit of Demetrius, she tears a lot of her clothes off, as well as many of his, totally against his will. Similarly, when Lysander falls in love with Helena, he starts stripping, and spends nearly half the show with an undone belt buckle. And then, depending on who is in love with whom at that present moment, everyone chases each other round the stage like Pan chasing nymphs. With scary Pan-level aggression.
Basically, it’s really, really rapey, and the fact that it’s played for laughs makes me deeply uncomfortable.
Love and sex are not, I would contend, the same thing in this play. Sure, this is a “sexy” play, an aspect often emphasised in performance, but the portrayal of love in this play is, I would argue, more about idealisation than sexualisation. The one overt sexual overture we have is when Lysander wants to sleep beside Hermia in the wood. She turns him down pretty firmly and he takes it without much sulking. This is a couple in love. Why, then, would the love-juice turn them into sex maniacs? I’d argue that it’s not only disquieting, but not a particularly sophisticated reading of the text either, even if it does lead to some moments of slapstick humour.
What this production does do well, however, are the fairies. The fact that they’re continually smoking spliffs and getting high made me laugh – in many ways, A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a drug trip of a play, as well as being preoccupied with the use of “magical” potions itself. Sheridan Smith is lovely as Titania, and her scenes with David Walliams’ Bottom are fabulous. Gavin Fowler as Puck is wonderfully impish, and the whole chorus of fairies are gossamer as could be desired. And the show belongs, undoubtedly, to Pádraic Delaney as Oberon, who prowls around the stage with a wonderfully sexy mixture of menace, magic, and mischief. He’s like Richard Armitage playing a David Bowie-esque Goblin King, and it totally works.
And of course, I should mention the show’s celebrity factor. David Walliams is very funny as Bottom. The way he plays his utter self-righteousness and narcissism is pinpoint accurate, and the scene at the end where the Mechanicals do their play? Screamingly funny.
This is a really, really watchable production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The aesthetic – that playful, sexy magic it possesses – is certainly realised. I just really wish a little more consideration had been put into the way “love” and “sex” were figured, particularly when it came to the humans. Maybe it would mean a few moments of physical comedy were lost, but when the alternative is a river of disquiet pulsing below the surface? I’d suggest that’s a worthy trade.