Spoiler alert: this review is written on the assumption the reader is already familiar with the plot.
The stage of Regent’s Park fairy light drenched open-air theatre has been concreted over. There are caravans, the hustle and bustle of tracksuit-wearing men and body-con, body-baring neon clad girls with big hair. There’s even a crane. Workmen shout and jeer through the audience. This is Shakespeare meets My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding.
It is an inspired contemporary setting. The hierarchies of the traveller world, the marriages at a young age, the oxymoron of swaggering, foul mouthed underdressed girls who value their virginity, who won’t have sex before marriage, as documented in the channel 4 TV show, fit nicely into Shakespeare’s Athenian society. Leaving aside questions over the TV show’s fair portrayal of a race of people, this is what the wider audience now recognises as Gypsy life: huge wedding dresses, massive diamante studded tiered cakes and a bumping and grinding dance routine to LMFAO’s, I’m Sexy And I Know It. Puck rides through them, a hoodie on a BMX, his face covered with a bandana; as if he’s arrived straight from the London riots or a Banksy artwork.
The Director Matthew Dunster’s Big Fat Shakespeare world is funny. Very funny. I particularly enjoyed Rebecca Oldfield’s tottering performance of Helena, clicking after her Demetrius in a fine example of both comic timing and slapstick. It was wet and cold on the night I went and I was wrapped in a ski jacket and a bin bag. Each time Oldfield and her fellow actors plunged about the sodden and concrete floor I winced. They didn’t even flinch.
George Bukhari excels as Bottom. His performance was a delight from start to finish. So much so that the darker side of the play took a while to sink in. Referencing the case where a group of travellers were arrested for imprisoning migrant workers, homeless and other vulnerable men as ‘slaves’, Bottom and his cohort of disparate voiced workmates are kept locked in a white transit van. They are prisoners. When they speak of being hanged there is a genuine fission of fear. This is a clever and bold move by Dunster. Again it fits nicely into the original tensions and motives explored by the play. But it does cast the traveller world in an archaic light, how easily their ways and community sit with a play written in the 1590s.
Or does it? Oberon and Titania appear in magical, if somewhat Mad Max style, guises. The unreality to balance the reality. Peer closely at the advertising hoarding that dominates the stage backdrop and you will see something familiar about the glossy couple advertising Athenian Developments. Puck famously reminds us to think of what we have seen as a dream at the end of the play. Has Dunster created a nightmare where the audience finds itself laughing at an oppressed people? When we giggle at the nylon tracksuits and gaudy jewellery, a ‘Chav’ uniform, we laugh at the lower class. When we laugh at Bottom and his captive clowns, we stand shoulder to shoulder with Theseus, the man who has imprisoned them for entertainment. An uncomfortable feeling settled like a layer of rain on my laughter. This is a production that questions more than what is on the stage. Go, watch, laugh, enjoy, but think about it afterwards.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream is showing until 5th September at the Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre. Further details here: http://openairtheatre.org/production/a-midsummer-nights-dream