Juxtaposed with the first, waterlogged attempt at a review, this evening’s weather is perfectly ripe for this open air production. The air is warm but we are not blinded by sharp sunlight, and there is a strong smell of pollen, which seems to fortify the feeling that there is a bit of magic in the air tonight.
Shakespeare often seems to work well outside, possibly because so much of it was originally written for outdoor spaces such as The Globe Theatre, so Regent’s Park is a very fitting location for this (often forest based) play - but what Open Air Theatre have done, rather than fully embracing their natural surroundings, is chosen a harsher and more concrete setting. The Athenians are modern day gypsies, and the initial set is that of a trailer park. It is aesthetically rather ugly, and the company do not shy away from the violence.
Does this work? Should Shakespeare be modernised in such a way? Some would argue that Shakespeare’s work doesn’t need such a contemporary twist; that it wasn’t written to be portrayed in this fashion. I, however, feel it is highly successful. Of course, modernising for the sake of modernising is pointless, but this production is clearly identifiable and relevant to the world today. What Open Air Theatre is showing us through this interpretation, is just how timeless and classic Shakespeare’s work is. The world may have evolved and people are dramatically different today, but the same raw feelings and emotions Shakespeare wrote about back in his time are still present in us today, whether among aristocrats in a country mansion or gypsies in a trailer park. The world has seen countless productions of this, one of the bard’s most popular plays, so wouldn’t it be boring if we set it in the same era every time? I say well done to Open Air Theatre for rejuvenating and refashioning this play so successfully.
What’s more, the modernisation is attacked so fiercely by the cast that we almost forget that they are speaking Shakespeare. The language seems very fluid in their strong and sometimes brash accents (Essex, Northern etc.). A great example of this is given by Rebecca Oldfield as Helena. She plays with a magnified honesty, filling the venue. She is consistent and clear, but also very genuine, meaning we can laugh out loud at her, as well as feel sympathy for her. All of the lovers, in fact, give fine performances. Often I feel the lovers are the most trivial, though pivotal, part of the play (the fairies and mechanicals providing the most entertainment), but in this portrayal the lovers are a large part of the production’s success.
The mechanicals, as is often the case, provide some very funny moments, particularly from Rolan Bell as Flute. Occasionally though, their dialogue does seem a little slow, perhaps because some of their moments are just a touch on the self-indulgent side at times, meaning the humour is not always at its peak.
Titania (Tamsin Carroll) and her fairies are certainly very ethereal, and have a spiritual presence, but Oberon (Christopher Colquhoun) and Puck (Oliver Johnstone) are less so. Oberon and Puck (Puck particularly) are seemingly more like the mortals of the play in physicality and vocals. Puck interferes with the lovers’ lives a lot, so perhaps he is almost camouflaging to be like them, or perhaps this interpretation is trying to highlight a more grounded and masculine presence in the male fairies, in contrast to the feminine and airy ways of Titania, but it is not quite clear enough. Titania’s ethereal qualities are pleasing because, as Queen of the fairies, one expects some magniloquence from her, but at the same time, Puck’s more personable qualities and Oberon’s slightly more human-like physicality are also satisfying. I just think that either the whole fairy world should be more separate from the mortal world, or that Oberon and Titania should have more common ground (physically and vocally) in order to clarify the work. Having said that though, they are fairies, so I suppose they have as free reign to be as human-like or non-human-like as they wish!
One of the slightly rarer aspects of this production is the hashing out of Theseus (David Birrell) and Hippolyta’s (Katie Brayben) relationship. Read as written, the brief moments of script between them could be (and are usually) interpreted as the most minor of tiffs, or rather, jovial disagreements. In this production however, there is a tension and a slightly more upsetting relationship between them, which adds a new, perhaps more realistic level to the play, and it fits perfectly with the overall production concept.
Matthew Dunster has directed a strong and passionate production, with sensational production values. Jon Bausor’s set is terrific, Olly Fox’s music has a good mixture of industrial and mystical qualities, and there are some excellent special effects which, although I don’t want to reveal too much, cause some shocked and awed reactions from the audience. Some may find this production a little too gritty, or at times just a touch vulgar, but if you are looking for a fresh and entertaining version of this classic, you’ve found it.