Tuesday, 12 March 2013

Review: Midsummer Night's Dream, Bristol Old Vic

Bristol Old Vic's latest in-house production is Midsummer Night's Dream. If you don't know what Midsummer's Night Dream is about you're probably either a) daft or b) Polish, like the friend I went with. 'So what's this all about then?' he said, blithely, as we entered the theatre. 

Well, it's one of those things with three couples and some mistaken identity and probably some drugs and a play-within-a-play-thing. Except in this case, with puppets as well. There is a gloriously stinking review in the Telegraph, here, in which Charles Spencer freely admits he hates puppets. Now me, I love puppets, and that was one of the reasons I actually bothered to see a play I've seen four or five times. 
Photo (c) Bristol Old Vic
Having said that, there were some things in this production - puppets included – which were great, and others which didn't work so well. At the beginning, three of the characters came on stage with doll-sized puppets of themselves. They began to speak as if it were the puppets speaking, and then broke out and played themselves. This confused me, and I couldn't concentrate on what was happening in the story. What were these dolls – were they people's other selves, like the daemons in Phillip Pullman? Were they there to signify that we were operating in a dreamspace? The actors continued to carry these around all play and I still couldn't work out what their function was. 

Other puppets were much better. Puck was a collection of objects, manipulated by three actors. Titania and Oberon were masks, held aloft by actors. I liked this disembodiment of the spirit characters, it made them authentically ghostly. Bottom was a bottom. No, really.

One of the things about Shakespeare is that he played to his audience, which meant both the people in the posh seats wanting wafty stuff about love, and the people scratching their arses and shouting in the the standing areas, wanting fart gags, and a funny bit with a dog. So often modern directors, who feel Shakespeare should be something highbrow, are ashamed of the fart gag sections, and just scoot over them in an embarrassed sort of way. I think it's fair to say that this is a version that's not ashamed of its fart gags, so I can fully understand why the Telegraph – and its readers – might hate it. 

After a wobbly start, it seemed to hit its velocity, and the last half hour was fantastic. I don't know if this was because of first-night nerves. All the actors were excellent, individually. Given that the actors were good, I felt that sometimes they were upstaged by the puppets, and that a little less puppetry might have made the whole thing a little more somehow. 

The puppets themselves are by a South African company called Handspring. To me, there were a number of things in the show that looked, and sounded African. The sounds (music played on tuned planks of wood) the masks, and the way the set, right at the end, became strangely reminiscent of a great wooden roundhouse. But that won't bother you if you don't notice it. 

Incidentally, said Polish friend, who had no idea what it was about, loved the entire thing. 'I had no idea Shakespeare could be fun!' he said, and bounded cheerily off into the night, leaving me standing outside the theatre door, overhearing an elderly couple moaning how they'd hated every minute.

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