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.

Herons, Lyric Hammersmith

A scene from Herons by Simon Stephens @ Lyric Theatre Hammersmith. Directed by Sean Holmes. (Opening 21-01-16) ©Tristram Kenton 01/16 (3 Raveley Street, LONDON NW5 2HX TEL 0207 267 5550 Mob 07973 617 355)email: tristram@tristramkenton.com

The herons of Simon Stephens’ play are vicious. Vicious and beautiful. They swoop down to catch their prey, still and composed until they go in for the kill.

There’s more than a hint of the animalistic to director Sean Holmes’ and dramaturg Joel Horwood’s new version of Herons. In the soggy Darwinian playground that designer Hyemi Shin has created, everyone gets dragged underwater at one point or another – though categories of predator and prey are never quite as simple as in the natural world that both play and production evoke. The footage of primates that plays constantly on a large screen above the action dares us to watch the unfolding events like a David Attenborough documentary, but it’s far more complicated than that.

If the landscape of the stage is a playground, then teenagers are its main inhabitants. While adults lurk on the sidelines, this is decidedly adolescent territory. As well as the playground, with its garish roundabout and bobbing sit-on horse, Shin’s set suggests all the abandoned, concrete spaces that kids flock to. This one happens to be a canal lock, water gradually trickling through its gates, but it could just as easily be a deserted car-park or grubby underpass. It’s an in-between sort of place, a no-man’s land for those stranded between childhood and adulthood.

One such stranded individual is Billy, the child of a broken marriage and the butt of his classmates’ jokes. A year ago, his dad found a dead girl in the river and reported the boys who killed her. Now Scott – the young brother of one of the murderers – is promising revenge, tormenting Billy with the help of his two guffawing sidekicks. They are cruel in the way that only children are, ruthless and cunning in pursuit of their prey.

The fragmented, out-of-joint aesthetic of the set extends to Holmes’ production, in which scenes jut sharply into one another and the rules of time and space are frequently disrupted. Horwood has cannily chopped and rearranged Stephens’ text, creating the breathless sense that everything is happening at once. What might be calm, quiet exchanges between Billy and his Dad, fishing at the water’s edge, become truncated and immersed into the all-pervasive brutality of schoolyard bullying. Scenes never quite end, the performers remaining on stage to watch what comes next, their presence looming and ominous.

There’s more than a hint of Secret Theatre, its legacy shimmering like the light reflected off the water. It’s unsurprising, perhaps, given that Holmes, Horwood and Shin are all involved. Yet here some of the most interesting aspects of that project – bold design, a resistance to naturalism, a sense of exploration and surprise – are married to another of the Lyric’s core purposes: its commitment to young people. Two Bugsy Malone alumni (Max Gill as Billy and Sophia Decaro as Adele, the young girl who befriends him) return in this production, while impressive performances are delivered by all of the teenage cast (alongside Ed Gaughan and Sophie Stone in compelling turns as Billy’s parents). We see, for a change, young people actually played by young people – and with nuance and complexity to boot.

There are aspects of the play that are inevitably jettisoned by Holmes and Horwood’s short, sharp shock of an approach. The tenderness that tempers the cruelty – in moments between Billy and his alternately tough and gentle dad, or in the delicate connection that Adele finds with Billy – only briefly glimmers through the darkness in this version, while there are few moments in which to pause or reflect. What it does do brilliantly, though, is blur the fine line that separates bully from victim, particularly in its portrayal of tormenting and tormented Scott (a fantastic, production-stealing performance from Billy Matthews).

Unlike in the animal world, here the food chain is forever shifting. Predator becomes prey. The heron swoops. The cycle of fear and violence starts again.

Photo: Tristram Kenton.