Tobacco Factory Theatre, Bristol – 6 April 2019
There is plenty to like in Tobacco Factory Theatre’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, a brisk, crisp and fully accessible take on the play that should provide perfect introductions to a Shakespeare novice. Played in the round, lovers switch, fairies enchant and a group of workers meet to rehearse a play. It is easy to see why it is Shakespeare’s most popular text, light, dark and magic combine to produce a work that, when it fully fires on all cylinders, has all the hazy feel of a dream.
Director Mike Tweddle, returning after his hugely successful 2018 A View From The Bridge and Beautiful Thing, has again crafted a well-conceived, thoughtful production. His main innovation is to gender switch two of the lovers, so Lysander is now portrayed by the terrific swaggering Evlyne Oyedokun and Helena has become Helenus and given vivid life by Joseph Tweedale’s, slightly hysteric, oft-abused lover. This works well, making sense in a modern world of why Lysander may be banned by Egeus from marrying his daughter, and ensuring that the forest scenes between the quartet become a sexuality fluid flow through the spectrum.
Yet maybe because this is a version designed to play to a schools crowd, it’s a version that lacks heat. Lovers may change and a Queen may become enamoured of an ass but- bar one oral joke- it feels a little chaste, a world away from the boisterousness of the Elizabethan Globe. In the best versions of the play I’ve seen, the anything-goes nature of the forest contrasts well with the stuffy confines of the court. The forest here isn’t wild enough, more Butlins weekend camp than an Ibiza bender.
There have also been better-spoken versions of the Dream. Some are natural speakers of the iambic, running through the lines and ensuring both rhythm and clarity are hit. Others swallow and garble it, meaning that though it’s played at a constant clip, the works natural rhythm is broken.
Still, there is plenty here to enjoy. Tweddle stages the Mechanicals play with gleeful invention, a love letter to the show must go on, as costumes malfunction and actors improvise frantically. He also turns one of Shakespeare’s most intriguing creations, Hippolyta, (she of 14 lines and usually little agency) into one who gets the final say in the court.
The ensemble, who later will also tackle Our Country’s Good are by and large solid with stand-out work from the already mentioned Tweedale and Oyedokun, while Dan Wheeler makes a touching Flute, discovering his voice while playing in drag and Dannan McAleer brings a solid presence to his multi-rolling
A solidly entertaining Dream then, though not one that particularly pushes out the boat.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream plays at Tobacco Factory Theatre’s until 6 April.