A Midsummer Night's Dream
Not Too Tame and Northern Stage
Shakespeare North Playhouse, Prescot
September 22-October 22, 2022; 2hr 30min
I have never had to write “Spoiler alert!” in a review, and since we were politely asked not to, I won’t describe the business at the start of this brash and breezy production.
Except to say it is a good joke, but drawn out too long. If one of its side aims is to explain about actors playing more than one part, then it’s a tad patronising; but it sets the tone – fast, physical and funny, with a smattering of profanity and proud of it.
If there were awards for “crazy ideas that made it”, then Shakespeare North Playhouse would be a cert for one. I confess I scoffed when the idea was first aired and yet here it is, with all its historical references and solid oak and curves and occasionally echoing acoustics. Is it churlish to mention the uncomfortable seating? It wasn’t just me: “Don’t know about you, but my back’s killing me” was a theme heard more than once, and it was a distraction.
But this production, directed by Matthew Dunster with Jimmy Fairhurst of Not Too Tame, is designed to surprise and excite, subvert your thinking and be a thoroughly good night out, and mostly it does just that. It is muscular, testosterone-fuelled and played for every possible laugh.
And in its midst, deaf actor William Grint, who signs as Lysander, stops you in your tracks. The interpretation, by Hermia (Rebecca Hesketh Smith) and Helena (Kate James) is natural, fast-flowing, completely integrated. Then suddenly the status quo is reversed and there is no interpretation; those of us who don’t understand the language are the outsiders struggling to guess what is being said. The language of love is universal of course, but it’s a powerful moment.
In contrast with the intimacy of this use of signing, the voice of David Morrissey’s disembodied Fairy King Oberon descends God-like from above. It has the effect of reducing his Queen Titania (musician and artist Nadine Shah) to an ethereal and meek handmaiden, who talks back from time to time but mostly knows her place. Her songs are beautiful (Nick Cave gets everywhere these days) but feisty she is not.
Bottom (Jimmy Fairhurst), by contrast, has enough heft for a whole troupe of rude mechanicals and isn't the usual dunce. His day job is as a security guard (minor spoiler alert there, sorry) and perhaps it’s the authority of the hi-vis vest, but he's an organiser every time he's on stage, which reduces Bottom’s customary daftness.
The comedy prize goes to David Nellist who morphs from Theseus to Thisbe with aplomb. And of course moving among them all with a bored detachment, a half-eaten pizza and an iPad with magical powers, is Louise Haggerty’s Puck. In a parka borrowed from Liam Gallagher and an attitude that would grace any of the M62’s great cities, she manipulates, messes up and then mends while somehow never quite being there.
Cleverly central to much of the comedy is some inspired use of multiple trapdoors in the set design by Jen McGinley, with stage crew presumably scurrying about like Borrowers under our feet.
With its stated aim of being "the antidote to the poison of tedious introductions to Shakespeare", this Midsummer Night's Dream had our audience roaring with laughter and engaging with huge enthusiasm.
Hopefully they will have forgotten about sore lumbar regions when they tell all their friends and neighbours what a great night out the new Playhouse is.
More info and tickets here