A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Lyric Hammersmith

A scene from A Midsummer Night's Dream @ Lyric Theatre, Hammersmith. Created by Filter and Directed by Sean Holmes and Stef O’Driscoll (Opening 25-02-16) ©Tristram Kenton 02/16 (3 Raveley Street, LONDON NW5 2HX TEL 0207 267 5550 Mob 07973 617 355)email: tristram@tristramkenton.com

I was ready to give up on A Midsummer Night’s Dream. In fact, I pretty much had; after the last uninspiring production, I made a personal vow not to see it again for at least five years. It’s just too familiar, its contours too well-trodden. I studied it multiple times, acted in it at school, saw production after gimmicky production try to put a new sheen on it. I was done, I decided, with fairies and mechanicals.

So I surprised myself slightly by going to Filter’s version at the Lyric Hammersmith. I think it was the words “riotous” and “irreverent” that appealed. And never has marketing copy been so spot on. Filter don’t just rip up the text – they douse it in beer and pelt it with food. It’s Shakespeare meets panto meets Secret Theatre.

Filter, together with directors Sean Holmes and Stef O’Driscoll, have latched onto the play-within-a-play conceit, playfully multiplying the meta-theatrical frames. At the start of the show, Ed Gaughan’s Peter Quince steps out between the curtains to say a few words – a prologue, if you will. There’s a special guest playing Bottom tonight, he excitedly tells us after some hurried preliminaries. But when said special guest gets stuck backstage shortly after, it’s up to a game audience member to step up and save the day.

So this Dream is a play within a play within a play, and Bottom is actually an unprepossessing (if enthusiastic) amateur, jumping up on stage with shopping bags in tow. Except, of course, he’s not. This is scripted chaos. Yet the extraordinary thing about Filter’s production is that, for all the knowing meta-theatrics (and despite being a remount of a production first staged in 2011), it manages to retain a feeling of real seat-of-the-pants improvisation. As performers crash through walls or tumble down holes, there’s a constant feeling that this could all go horribly wrong.

In that sense, then, it’s absolutely in keeping with the clumsy craft of the mechanicals, who here become Gaughan, his backing band and their last-minute Bottom (Andrew Buckley). They’re just about holding together both the fiction of the show as a whole and the play within a play that exists inside it, easily flipping between Shakespearean dialogue and twenty-first-century colloquialisms. Elsewhere, there’s a lycra-clad, cape wielding Oberon (Jonathan Broadbent), a poutily unimpressed Titania (Cat Simmons), and four of the most demonstratively lustful lovers the play has ever seen (special mentions to John Lightbody’s hip-thrusting Lysander and Hammed Animashaun’s soulful, Marvin Gaye-style wooing as Demetrius).

Filter also have a unique take on Puck, played here by the company’s co-artistic director Ferdy Roberts. No airy sprite, Roberts is instead a scruffy, sardonic handyman, keeping the wheels of Oberon’s enterprise rolling through elbow-grease more than magic. It’s a nod to the hard work for some that usually sits beneath the fun of others, though this Puck also gets his fair share of mischief. Cracking open cans of Fosters, he lets the lovers’ quarrels unfold like a soap opera, watching on with a grin and only reluctantly intervening to undo the mess he has made.

Like Dmitry Krymov’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream (As You Like It) – another twist on Shakespeare’s play that has little interest in the text – Filter reveal to us the magic, the trickery and the silliness of theatre. Sound plays an important role here: the supporting fairies are nothing more that zooming, zipping sound effects, yet still you want to follow the noise in spite of yourself in hope of snatching a fleeting glimpse. Everything is mixed and produced on stage, but the absence of illusion only makes it all the more theatrical. Look, Filter say, this is how it all works – and still we as an audience want to be taken in by it.

The stalls are full of teenagers on the night I attend, and I find myself wishing I’d been taken to Shakespeare like this as a schoolkid. It’s full of joyous, ridiculous moments: spontaneous bursts of song, Oberon descending from above on a wire, a rapidly escalating food fight. And unlike any of those other productions I’d seen, this Dream feels full of life. Filter are irreverent when it comes to following the letter of the text, perhaps, but they create a theatrical experience with all the fun, mischief and pandemonium that the cheekiest of Shakespeare’s plays seems to demand.

Photo: Tristram Kenton.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream (As You Like It)

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In Stage Fright, Animals and Other Theatrical Problems, Nicholas Ridout writes about the moments when theatre breaks down. His book investigates all those glitches – the stutter, the laugh, the unexpected interruption of a creature on stage – when the theatrical machinery temporarily halts and we see the true nature of the event unfolding before us. In Ridout’s words, “something of our relationship to labour and to leisure is felt every time the theatre undoes itself around the encounter between worker and consumer”.

Dmitry Krymov’s take on A Midsummer Night’s Dream – or more accurately, on its play within a play, Pyramus and Thisbe – looks a lot like Ridout’s thesis writ large. This is not really about love or fairies or Shakespeare; this is about theatre. Theatre in all its pretending, its failure, its illusion, its beauty, its exquisite silliness.

It is also theatre as work. It is more than just comedy that has drawn Krymov and his company to the Mechanicals in Shakespeare’s play; they also represent, as their collective title suggests, the labour that goes into stage illusion. In a programme note, Krymov says that he couldn’t see himself in either the courtly or the magical worlds of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. “I am not a fairy,” he explains, “I am a craftsman.” Theatre is not magic conjured from thin air – it is craft.

And yet …

Recently, while interviewing playwright Alistair McDowall, we talked about the idea of theatre as magic trick. We agreed that the reason this particular analogy works so well is that it suggests both the thrill of illusion and the strings that make everything work. As audience members, we at once want to see the workings – the workings that we know to be there in the background – and to be taken in by what we see before us. To contradict myself, theatre is magical, but magical in the sense of a magic trick; we know that skill and work goes into it.

As in the usual staging of the play within a play in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Krymov’s production positions us both as the audience of Pyramus and Thisbe and as external observers of another audience: the courtiers the Mechanicals have been charged with entertaining. In this imagining they are haughty and distracted, checking messages on their smartphones and interjecting with their derision, disapproval and occasional outrage. If we see a picture of ourselves, it’s not a flattering one.

As for the players, they’re a suitably ragtag bunch, trussed up in scruffy black tie like children playing dress-up. Their set and props, meanwhile, are crudely thrown together, even down to the sawdust coated scaffold on which their audience are directed to sit. There’s no forgetting that these are labourers and that the show they (eventually) present is as much a construction as their wonky, makeshift auditorium.

So it’s all the more extraordinary when we do, by some strange theatrical alchemy, get drawn into the tale being told. After a lengthy introduction, lightly touching on ideas of art, entertainment and intention, Krymov’s Mechanicals finally get around to the story of Pyramus and Thisbe, who take the form of two towering, mismatched puppets. Pyramus has a portrait for a head; Thisbe balances precariously on one ballet shoe and one boot. They are fragile and ridiculous – not all that different from their human operators, then, or the theatrical event itself.

At first, what charm us are the tricks. Acrobats balance and somersault; the Mechanicals’ dog – the indisputable star of the show – even turns a backflip. We are at the circus, operating in an economy of gasps and giggles, occasionally ruptured by an interjection that causes a stumble, a mistake. Then something unexpected happens. Under just the right light, with just the right musical accompaniment, there is something incredibly tender about this pair of ungainly figures, and something happens that pretty much never happens in other Dreams: we feel for these star-crossed lovers. But these moments are brittle – easily snapped.

One sequence from a long procession of images stands out. In the glow of their initial ardour, Pyramus and Thisbe dance. This is no effortless waltz; the meeting of the two puppets’ bodies is a frenetic feat of manoeuvring, requiring a large team of performers. Watching the rickety figures spin around the stage, two opposing things become simultaneously true: the moment is both beautiful and oddly moving, and at the same time conspicuous in its feverish craft. Labour and illusion at once – the magic trick.

“This is the nature of theatre,” Krymov states elsewhere in the programme, “this is how theatre is created.” Precisely.

Photo: Ellie Kurttz.