It’s being billed as ‘A Play for The Nation.’ Part of the RSC’s year-long programme to mark the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, Erica Whyman’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a production of generosity. The idea behind it is appealingly embracive. Over the course of its UK tour the production will showcase 14 different amateur companies from around the country. They’ll all perform as the Mechanicals in their home cities before performing on stage in Stratford-upon-Avon in the summer.
As rousing as all of that is, Whyman’s production itself takes a while to cast its spell (but then, whisper it, there are some fairly dull bits in Dream). It’s charming enough, but it takes its time coming to life.
Designer Tom Piper has remade the Royal Shakespeare Theatre as, well, a theatre, albeit one in state of decay, with crumbling brickwork and tumbling red velvet drapes, a grand piano standing in for Titania’s bower. The costumes are drawn from the 1940s and the production evokes a post-war world in transition, its makeup changing, something which is reflected in the diversity of the casting. There’s a statement being made, albeit gently.
In addition to the amateur companies, across the course of the tour Titania’s fairy court will be made up of groups of local school children, a sweet if somewhat superfluous addition to what is already a warm-hearted exercise. But it’s the scenes with the Mechanicals that are, perhaps unsurprisingly and intentionally, the strongest part of the production, and the play-within-a-play is a real comic highpoint. On press night it was the turn of Wyre Forest’s Nonentities Society and while Chris Clarke makes for a solid Bottom, it’s Alex Powell’s Flute who really makes an impression. His is a deft and well-shaped comic performance, his timing superb.
Elsewhere the physical is often foregrounded over the verse-speaking (which is patchy in places), with Sian Williams’ movement direction generating some of the funniest moments of the night. The casting of Lucy Ellinson as Puck is also something of masterstroke. Always compelling, whether convincingly playing a US fighter pilot in Grounded or bellowing against austerity in #Torycore, she also proves to be a capable comedian. An impish, winking Vesta Tilley figure, tuxedoed, top-hatted, and sporting a magnificent Tintin-quiff, she’s androgynous, playful, expressive and in full command of the verse.
Chu Omambala’s Oberon has presence but is not given a lot of room to develop it and of the four lovers, only Jack Holden – excellent in Johnny Got His Gun at Southwark Playhouse in 2014 – stands out as Lysander. It’s Ben Goffe (another superb physical comedian) who runs away with the largest laugh of the night as Mustardseed. Though its first half meanders, this is a production of heart and one that ends on a note of genuine celebration.