A Midsummer Night’s Dream review at the Young Vic Theatre, London – ‘a mirthless mud bath’
It may be the nation’s favourite Shakespeare, but when you stop and think about it, A Midsummer Night’s Dream is pretty damn problematic: a messy, uncomfortable story of misogyny, manipulation and substance abuse. That’s what Joe Hill-Gibbins thinks anyway. His production unleashes all that’s ugly in the play, and all that’s repellant in its characters. It’s a scrappy, sordid reimagining. A Midsummer Nightmare.
Johannes Schütz’s startling set consists of little more than a semi-circle of treacherous mud, across which the cast stagger their wanton way until, by the conclusion, they’re caked in filth. It’s a cunning conceit. No longer are the woods surrounding Athens a magical, ethereal realm, they’re the last day of Glastonbury. One half-expects to see used condoms and broken glass buried in the mire. Maybe a collapsed tent or two.
And they’re inhabited by fairies of a different sort, sprites unhinged by jealousy, maddened with lust, and fuelled by a furious desire for revenge. Michael Gould’s shirtless, scowling Oberon is a study in patriarchal anger, Lloyd Hutchinson’s Puck his lazy, slobbish, sardonic collaborator, and Anastasia Hille’s Titania their disobedient plaything.
The mortals fare no better. John Dalgleish’s Lysander, a Jack Wills shop on legs, isn’t so much in love with Jemima Rooper’s Hermia, as determined to wheedle his way into her knickers. He isn’t distracted from her by the juice of a little western flower, but by her refusal to put out. Oliver Alvin-Wilson’s Demetrius is brutishly uncaring, callously warning Anna Madeley’s Helena to conceal her virginity out here. It’s all squeamishly well thought-out.
And yet, and yet. A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a gloriously funny play, and Hill-Gibbins captures precious little of its humour. There’s sparks of it in Matthew Steer’s Oxbridge-ish Peter Quince and in Leo Bill’s Maria McKee-singing, John Lennon lookalike Bottom. But these are precious scraps. In pursuit of his seamy vision, Hill-Gibbins has thrown the baby out with the bathwater. A comedy this is no longer.
His is a radical reimagining to be sure, one that brutally exposes the febrile depravity lurking underneath the conventional froth, but consider what’s been sacrificed. Gone is the magic. Gone is the humour. We’re left with a mirthless, interval-less, two-hour mud bath that portrays men as aggressive sexual manipulators and women as powerless, vulnerable victims. Is that a fair price to pay? I’m really not sure it is.