sun 28/02/2021

A Midsummer Night's Dream, Barbican | reviews, news & interviews

A Midsummer Night's Dream, Barbican

A Midsummer Night's Dream, Barbican

Handspring Puppet Company creates visual enchantment, but actors are low on word magic

A wood near Athens comes to life on the Barbican stageBoth images by Simon Annand

An insider once told me that you get a grant for including puppets in a production. Which may account for the amount of crap puppetry haphazardly applied in the theatre. That certainly can't be said about the work of husband-and-husband team Adrian Kohler and Basil Jones of Handspring as they collaborate again with War Horse director Tom Morris, this time on Shakespearean texturing of organic discipline.

An insider once told me that you get a grant for including puppets in a production. Which may account for the amount of crap puppetry haphazardly applied in the theatre. That certainly can't be said about the work of husband-and-husband team Adrian Kohler and Basil Jones of Handspring as they collaborate again with War Horse director Tom Morris, this time on Shakespearean texturing of organic discipline. The problem is that such focused visual imagination needs to be matched by verbal beauty, word magic, of the highest order, and it isn’t.

I can't agree with Mark Kidel, who in his original review of Morris's Bristol Old Vic production thought the puppets got in the way (though to be fair, much seems to have been pruned; the lovers no longer have wooden doubles, for instance). It’s not just that you’re waiting for them to do their stuff through a slowish first act in Theseus’s Athens. Credibility is at stake, for a start: what’s this leather-jacketed cool dude of a Duke thinking of when he upholds the Athenian law of death for filial disobedience, and why doesn’t his bohemian metrosexual artist Hippolyta do more than look daggers at him for doing so? More problematic, though, is the verse-mumbling from lovers, father and royals: only David Ricardo Pearce’s Theseus soon cuts free from it.

He and Saskia Portway’s Hippolyta are much better once they’re given their fairy masks to hold aloft as Oberon (pictured below) and Titania, but that’s because they’re now amplified. Even here Dave Price’s jangly, over-persistent and often fey, Celtic twilighty score as well as the elevated visual identities seem to be expected to do the enchantment for the characters; there’s still not enough that’s beguiling about those wonderful lines. The lovers, too, look right – handsome, puppyish boys, a tall, thin Helena and a short, feisty Hermia – but only Kyle Lima as Demetrius speaks the text well, and even he’s rather quiet. Akiya Henry’s Hermia comes into her own when incandescent at insults, but you’ll have seen more dynamic and edgier quarrel scenes.

David Ricardo Pearce as Oberon in A Midsummer Night's DreamThe mechanicals come off best on Shakespeare’s terms. Miltos Yerolemou’s Bottom is entitled to put on a cod-Greek accent, though he’s better when speaking his Pyramus-lines straight, and his physical gags are good (though you ain’t seen nothing by the end of his first scene). There’s a fair quotient of inventive laughs to the most tragical comedy: carved wooden lovers speaking under the crotch/through the hole of Fionn Gill’s slightly over the top Snout/Wall and Colin Michael Carmichael’s gangly Peter Quince making odd euphonium noises and corrections to “Ninny’s tomb” from the side. Christopher Keegan even gets a few laughs as pompous master of ceremonies Philostrate in addition to his piping Thisbe.

But it’s the Handspring component which offers the biggest pleasures. The wood is planks manipulated by the company and magically transformed into moonbeams around Titania’s head; what a shame more of their tapping and self-made music wasn’t allowed to be exclusive of the soundtrack. Puck is a waggy-tailed creature made up of discarded bits of metal and wood the fairies may have found left behind by humans in their domain, and voiced as well as manipulated by three of the hard-working actors’ team of 12. That rather rules out a strong epilogue – the play ends instead with a musically cheesy fairy parade – but mostly works well.

There's no moon but plenty of mooning in the coup of Bottom translated: and he really is in the proper sense of the word, debagged and carried on to a wheely contraption where slippers on his feet form the ass’s ears (sadly, no image seems to be available; maybe it would be too much of a spoiler). Again, the verbal enchantment of Titania’s infatuation may be lost, but it’s worth it to hear a whole new meaning to “I thy amiable cheeks do coy”. Since the rest of the evening whizzes by pleasurably enough, it’s certainly worth seeing the show for bottom – lower case – aloft on wheels. That you won’t have come across before.

There's no moon but plenty of mooning in the coup of Bottom translated

rating

Editor Rating: 
3
Average: 3 (1 vote)

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