First published on The Public Reviews website.
Genuinely novel interpretations of A Midsummer Night’s Dream are few and far between, it’s even rarer to find one that wholly dispenses with the original text, throws in some musical numbers and transports the entire thing to the mythical perfect summer of 1913, a year before the outbreak of the First World War. People can get very precious about Shakespeare, especially new-fangled productions, so it can be a risk. Yet this revival of The Dreaming (first performed in 2001) in the round at The Union Theatre incorporates all these elements to provide an entertaining evening that offers new insights into a well-worn play.
The plot is familiar, young lovers, now renamed Charlotte (Hermia), Alexander (Lysander), Jennifer (Helena) and David (Demetrius), run off into the woods pursued by Charlotte’s father and the local Lord of the Manor. There they become unwittingly embroiled in a domestic spat between the King and Queen of the Woodland Folk and for one night in the dark forest lives are turned upside down.
One of the most interesting things about The Dreaming is the fresh perspective it takes on a number of the key characters particularly the Woodland folk who replace Shakespeare’s fairies. They are not the usual fey, floaty beings playing tricks for fun, but a tribal group of prowling creatures who harass any who cross their path. Syvia’s (Titania’s) retinue crawl onto the stage, somewhere between a female version of Peter Pan’s Lost Boys and Macbeth’s witches, shortly followed by their male counterparts who have a similar earthy nature, but are scared of their master’s wrath – an additional twist.
Another clever plot device is to give Jack (Puck) some proper motivation rather than just a mischievous nature. Here instead Jack is a runaway Blacksmith’s son who wants to join the male Woodlanders’ tribe and so he must complete an initiation rite – finding the drugged plant and bewitching Sylvia. It’s a unique approach and really helps to keep the story on track. The Rude Mechanicals led by the local vicar are, by contrast, hilarious and although many productions run out of steam after the lovers are returned to normal, their staging of St George and the Dragon at Lord Julian’s birthday party is an absolute treat.
One of the real successes of this production is how all these tiny innovations are used to add to the humanity of the characters without veering too far from the original story. It really is a team performance with equally enjoyable and distinct contributions from the leads and chorus. The Dreaming is simply staged with a few make-shift trees, but uses clever lighting to denote changes in day, mood and tone. There is a high energy-level throughout as characters run alarmingly around the audience, making full use of the space as well as ensuring the action is visible from all angels – full credit to Paul Clarkson for some nifty directing here.
Most of the songs also seem quite fitting, giving the audience a nice mix of romantic ballads, rousing comedy tunes and big ensemble set-pieces. Sometimes the words get a bit lost in the music and it is clear that some cast members are primarily singers, but the merging of solo performances and multi-character songs is nicely balanced.
It is great to see a version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream that does not shy away from the darker aspects of the play and that is the greatest strength of this production. So rarely does a period setting suit a play but Edwardian England is consistently realised and used to subtly reinforce the theme of dreams and reality. It may be happy endings all round for now, but in a year this generation will face something much more destructive than the Woodlanders’ mischief. In fact, this sense of darkness as a counterpoint to light is clear throughout and no happy moment remains untainted by shadows of what is to come. This production of The Dreaming has bags of charm and is lots of fun, but its inventive take on one of Shakespeare’s most famous plays will leave you in no doubt that the Larkin poem printed in the programme is right – ‘Never such innocence again.
The Dreaming is at the Union Theatre until 27 September. Tickets are £20 or £17 for concessions.