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A Midsummer Night's Dream, Southwark Playhouse - review

Photo by Harry Grindrod

It's a silly story really, and a silly set-up. Young lovers lost in the woods, mistaken identities, a man becomes a donkey. And yet it delves deeper too, exploring the anxieties of love. Previous productions I've seen of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream have captured the magical nature of the play but never truly its playfulness, and here is where this production at Southwark Playhouse succeeds - inducing genuine big belly laughs and smiles throughout.

This new production by Go People adds another layer to the play-within-a-play construct of the original text: here we have a play within a play within a play, which is much less confusing than it sounds. We meet the actors (the "real" actors, not imagined - Maddy, Freddie et al) as they greet eachother with excitement and get allocated the roles they'll play. Then slowly, seamlessly, we move into the play itself - with everyday modern dress remaining, with a few additions of simple props.

Very quickly the issue of set, or rather - the lack of, is addressed. We're told to imagine, again and again: a shift in lighting, a fall of rain, a giant oak tree. We're told to "imagine yourself an audience capable of having an imagination" and soon, once the laughter lets up, we do.

This stripping back to the bare bones of theatre feels refreshing. As wonderful as sumptuous sets can be, here power is given to the absence of a visual set-up and to imagination in its place. This got me thinking about the difficulty of realistically depicting most Shakespeare, with magical woodlands or battlegrounds ("exit pursued by a bear" anyone?), and I appreciated the playfulness of this being so knowingly explored.

The laughs watching a Shakespeare are usually expected and gentle, but here it's more varied, and often hysterical - in the best way. Humour came from the play-within-a play set-up, sometimes reminiscent of The Play That Goes Wrong, and also from the sheer commitment to Shakespeare's words (Bottom as bawdy as he could ever be, acted intensely, hilariously by Freddie Fox). There was more subtle humour too via little shifts in the speech, a speedy delivery or unexpected emphasis giving laughs where you wouldn't imagine them and a more contemporary feeling in this fresh look at the text.

Freddie Fox as Bottom. Photo by Harry Grindrod.

Laughs also came from the audience interaction. With just seven actors performing a play with 17 roles, a wonderful opportunity was given for directly involving the audience in the action. One man found himself led by hand around the stage acting the role of the transformative flower. If that was me I'd be dying inside (beware the front row!) but he was a good sport and it added extra excitement - getting us all onboard and not quite believing what was happening.

What I was most impressed by in this production though, other than the sheer energy of the cast, was the balance achieved between comedy and drama. The deeper issues and feelings in the play exploring the pain of love, and ideas of truth, came to life in a way I didn't expect.

The thread that runs through the production letting both humour and emotion work is the utter conviction from the actors in believing in what is happening in their world, magical and ridiculous though it may be. The look of disbelief, relief and joy from Helena (played by Lucy Eaton) as she is finally loved by her Demetrius is layered and completely believable.

Through this energetic commitment of the cast, alongside the meta fun and audience involvement, I felt closer to the action than I ever have before with Shakespeare. As well as the theatrical devices we're also literally close with the intimate, traverse stage, and actors moving seemingly as close to the audience as possible at times. We share laughter but also in the suffering of the characters - and I think this sharing feels key, that the audience is truly part of what's happening.

In his programme note director Simon Evans acknowledges this intention, talking of a growing frustration with "a move towards a solipsistic type of play-making in which something elegant happened on stage, but from which an audience was emotionally held at arms length." In his mission to amend this distanced state to something more truthful and communal Simon Evans has absolutely succeeded.

Early on the actors jokingly apologise to any purists in the audience for the modifications of the play, and yet it feels that in this contemporary production Evans has landed on something much more akin with Shakespeare's intentions and the feeling of experiencing his plays at the time than any traditionally played out productions with period dress could ever reach.

My one draw-back to the evening was a slight craving for an interval. Usually I like plays straight-through to keep the momentum going and not lose the effect of the world-building but here the energy and humour felt almost tiring as we neared the end (the production sits at 110 minutes).

Still, to complain of being so entertained a production becomes slightly wearying is really no complaint at all, and with the final performance of the royal play the production reached its outrageous, wonderful climax leading to a standing ovation and cheers at curtain call.

Energetic, playful and wildly funny - this new production brings to life the Bard's work in the most genuinely engaging way on this 400th anniversary year. So many shows have claimed to celebrate this milestone year and yet this really does feel like a celebration - full of laughs and a new appreciation of this classic, often-performed play

This is without doubt the most fun I've had at a Shakespeare and the most I've laughed at any play in a long time. Hugely entertaining and highly recommended. 

Go People's A Midsummer Night's Dream plays at the Southwark Playhouse until Friday 1st July.


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