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A Midsummer Night’s Dream

by William Shakespeare

Directed by Diana Thomas

Rose Theatre

12 – 31 July 2010










A review by Mary Couzens for EXTRA! EXTRA!


When the audience enters the small theatre space of the Rose, with seats facing the foundations of the first Elizabethan theatre on Bankside where some of Shakespeare’s early works would have been performed, the setting seems apt. However, for word of mouth’s production of that perpetual summer favourite, A Midsummer Night’s Dream (circa 1594-96), a screen on one wall flashes tabloid headlines proclaiming the darker idiosyncrasies of some of the characters. Puck is a teenage girl with an ASBO and a disregard for authority, Hermia is a 21 year old ‘babe’, Titania has drug problems, and floods of immigrants from Poland and Greece are flooding the local job market. David Bowie’s ‘Fame’ plays in the background, followed by The Doors ‘People are Strange’, a fact this production seeks to emphasise.

Who hasn’t seen this play? For those of us who haven’t seen a production of Dream lately, here’s the rundown – the whole premise seems to centre on class, with the main event, as written, being the upcoming marriage of Theseus – Duke of Athens and Hippolyta – Queen of the Amazons. Young lovers Hermia and Lysander want to marry too, but her parents have chosen Demetrius to be her husband, which he doesn’t have a problem with, even though he’s not hot on her, being the callow fellow he is. However, Helena, his ex-girlfriend, (we are lead to believe), still hankers for him and wants him back. Hermia and Lysander decide to elope but their plan gets waylaid when they head into the forest by night. Helena follows Demetrius into the forest, who’s followed Hermia, to try to persuade him she’s the girl for him. Forget about fairies and fairy queens and kings, because in this production because there aren’t any, though there are drugs and a kind of magic, albeit urbanised, which makes things comes out as they should in the end, as they do in the original. I won’t tell you about Bottom and company in their play within a play here, because that would spoil some of this production’s best comic twists. Suffice it to say that the funny parts in this play are laugh out loud funny in this production thanks to fine acting and Diana Thomas’ imaginative directing.

Casting is an important feature of this production as it should be in any. But here, the three main women in the story are physically very different – Titania (Laura Predelska), usually the fairy princess, here seems a humanistic street child protector, and as Hippolyta - a bored, willowy socialite, Helena (Laura Evelyn) is a reedy intelligent young woman and Hermia (Shaleen Hudda) is an Athenian looking gal still sporting baby fat. These physical differences work especially well in comic scenes when the latter two women tussle, with Hermia referring to Helena as a ‘painted maypole’ and herself as ‘dwarfish’ etc. They also help the audience think of each character as a completely different person. This may seem an elemental thing, but I can’t tell you how many productions of this play I’ve seen which have featured a Hermia and Helena who are virtually, indistinguishable. Another very effective aspect of this production is its inventive use of few props, such as a metallic bulletin board, on which the director of the play within a play advertises for actors. A large plastic bin implies the town centre. Simple, but is underage Puck (Laura Harling) rushing around in dark hoodie and form fitting leggings, swigging a can of beer.

The play is timeless and so is its timeframe here. Bottom’s friend and fellow ‘actor’ Snug the Joiner (Michael Chalkley) munches crisps while rehearsing his roles of Wall and Lion for Pyramus and Thisbe, scenes between the young couples are more overtly sensual than usual, and Oberon/Theseus seems more like a cross between a drug pusher and a child abuser than a fairy king or Lord. Perhaps substance abuse and warped kicks from gratuiteous violence have replaced pixie dust and magic mushrooms of the kind traditionally found in the woods here.

The actors all do their jobs well, though standouts include Laura Evelyn as a top notch Helena who speaks her lines so naturalistically they almost seem conversational, adding contemporary impetus. Damian Dudkiewicz who plays Bottom and his play within a play counterpart, Pyramus, handles the physicality of his roles especially well, to the delight of his audience. The fact that he has studied both mime and physical theatre was apparent as he added lively layers to his enactment of his comic characters. Denys Gaskill is also a standout as Egeus/Quince and, Philostrate as is Jennifer Skapeti as Flute, Thisbe and ‘Boy’, a vagrant type youth who replaces one of the play’s nearly silent fairies, ...Cobweb or Mustard Seed, take your pick. Michael Chalkley, whom I mentioned before, is also very good at getting laughs with his three small roles. Lastly, Laura Harling showed potential as Puck, a Peter Pan like character who is and always has been whenever I’ve seen this play – male. Ms. Harling demonstrates a tomboy, pseudo Laura Tomb-Raider aspect here which works very well. Thomas Thoroe as Demetrius and Scott Jones as Lysander generate laughs during their ‘fight’ scenes and Shaleen Hudda similarly shines during Hermia’s more comic moments.

Director Diana Thomas makes a good job of condensing and re-arranging some of the physical and technical aspects of this play and keeps things moving along while maintaining interest. There are some grey areas here though, as would be expected with such a challenge. For example, it’s not quite clear what Gareth Pilkington, who makes a fine Theseus is meant to be doing when he’s Oberon, and sometimes it’s not immediately clear who he is at any given moment, unless you are very familiar with this play’s nuances and scene changes. Similarly, Laura Pradelska sometimes seems a bit lost and/or wasted in her Titania scenes and it’s not always clear what her Hippolyta is supposed to be about, though perhaps we’re meant to take our cues from tabloid headlines about her character prior to the performance.

However, all in all, this is a very entertaining production, made all the more enjoyable for its DIY aesthesis and the restraint showed in regard to modernisation, which happily, prevents the production from slipping over the edge into mediocrity. Director Thomas draws some fine performances from her actors, though that works both ways so credit is due to them as well. The close proximity of the actors here commands attention, but it also functions as a spotlight which might potentially reveal those not yet worthy of artistic scrutiny. This pared down version of the play is fast, fun and far more entertaining than it would be if it was merely functional, as some of the longer productions of this play have been, therefore, side-stepping tedium. Only Propeller Theatre’s all male production of Dream stands above this one in my memory in terms of fun.

This is the second production I’ve seen and enjoyed at the Rose Theatre in Bankside over the past couple of months, so I’d say it’s time you sprang for a ticket to a night out there too. You better hurry though, because this production ends on Sat. 31st of July. 
And, given the fact that the last production at the Rose Theatre, Arden of Faversham has been nominated for Best Show at this year’s London Fringe Festival and exciting developments are set to occur surrounding the theatre within the next eighteen months, there’s likely to be a stampede in that direction in the not too distant future. Don’t say I didn’t warn you...




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