Theatre review: A Midsummer Night's Dream brings the wild into the Esplanade

A production photo from A Midsummer Night's Dream presented by Shakespeare's Globe. -- PHOTO: SIMON KANE
A production photo from A Midsummer Night's Dream presented by Shakespeare's Globe. -- PHOTO: SIMON KANE

There was a bit of the wild forest in the Esplanade Theatre as Shakespeare's Globe swept through with quite a delightful romp through one of Shakespeare's most beloved comedies.

Directed by the Globe's artistic director, Dominic Dromgoole, and starring award-winners and West End mainstays Aden Gillett (as Theseus/Oberon) and Janie Dee (Hippolyta/Titania), this production goes back to its Elizabethan roots while still throwing in a magical twist or two along the way.

A Midsummer Night's Dream is a confluence of three different stories. In the first, Hermia and Lysander want to elope against her father's wishes, while Demetrius is hell-bent on getting Hermia back, and Helena pines for Demetrius. They all run to the woods where they unwittingly stumble across the abode of the squabbling king and queen of the fairies, Oberon and Titania. In the second story, a vengeful Oberon sets in motion a plan to humiliate Titania with the nectar of a magic flower. In the meantime, a rough crew of tradesmen, the Mechanicals, are rehearsing a play for Theseus and Hippolyta's wedding reception. The three stories collide headlong into each other, and much merriment, mistaken identities and misplaced romances ensue.

With all the fairies as warm-blooded woodland creatures - antlers, furs and all - rather than fragile, diaphanous spirits, there was a deep sense of the bacchanal, the carnal, the things humans once were before magic was forgotten and they presumably became blind to the fairy world; Oberon tells the audience directly that he is invisible to the four frustrated lovers.

There are some clever design touches knitted into the heart of the production - the more Hermia, Lysander, Demetrius and Helena spend in the wood, the grimier and more disrobed but more primal they get, stripped away of their Athenian and material trappings, of their decorum and dignity, they seem more affiliated with the creatures of the wood rather than the gentlefolk of the city - more passionate, more wild, more real.

This Dream deliberately brings all that wild abandon to the surface, and more.

With the refined Theseus and Hippolyta doubling as the tempestuous Oberon and Titania - when one sees the Duke and Duchess later, there always seems to be a latent tug of that infectious wildness beneath that genteel facade.

This makes me wish that the production had been set outdoors, under a moon or surrounded by greenery, instead of the elegant but restrained enclosure of the Esplanade Theatre.

There is nothing staid about this joyful play, except perhaps the portrayal of Puck as a melancholy, sometimes petulant child rather than an impish sprite the way of Ariel in the Tempest. This Puck, so grounded and self-contained, lacked a sort of inherent mischief - but this also meant that Oberon and Titania come across as the puckish ones, easily incited by petty jealousies, trying to control their realm but also dabble in the misfortunes of the unfortunate human quartet, as one might arrange characters in a play.

Shakespeare indulges in a fun bit of meta-theatre here: just as Oberon's mischief fails miserably before all is set right, the Mechanicals' hilariously awful play sees its own characters unable to control themselves, with the "director" Peter Quince steamrolled by any director's worst nightmare - the talky, side-splitting Nick Bottom. The Mechanicals milk their toe-tapping, jaunty scenes for every last drop of comedy and affection - and by the end of the play, when they stage an awful rendition of the "tragical mirth" of Pyramus and Thisbe, they have become the unlikely stars of the show.

While Dromgoole strips away the illusion of theatre in the Mechanicals' play, with the "actors" constantly forgetting lines and props and cues, he keeps the illusion of the larger production strong. We are enchanted by the implied magic, by Oberon's sleight of hand, and the seductive beauty of Titania - a power woman by any means.

But this illusion was cracked sometimes by the production's obsessive use of cheap gags that sometimes condescended to the audience, milking the ad-libs for easy laughs. I felt very uncomfortable with Hippolyta's abrupt use of a few lines of Mandarin in the show as a throwaway gag to score some "oohs" and laughter - we don't need to be pandered to in a reductive, racially stereotypical way, and with plenty of non-Mandarin speaking members of the diverse audience whispering bewildered questions to each other after, this joke that catered to a select few but not others just felt rude.

But even then, there was an intimacy and warmth to this production that just could not be suppressed. Here are the contradictions of love dissected, a love that can turn off just as much as it can turn on. Helena, begging after Demetrius ("Use me but as your spaniel, spurn me, strike me, Neglect me, lose me; only give me leave, Unworthy as I am, to follow you"), is the very debased pinnacle of unrequited love. A more mature Oberon and Titania also meant that they could be the symbol of a long marriage gone weary (but soon spiced up, not to worry).

By the time the play is through, it is nearly "fairy time", and I'm sure I wasn't the only one leaving the theatre with a slight bounce in my step, wondering what I might dream of that night.

corriet@sph.com.sg

Follow Corrie Tan on Twitter @CorrieTan

book it

A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM

Where: Esplanade Theatre

When: Nov 14 and 15 (Fri and Sat) at 8pm, Nov 15 and 16 (Sat and Sun) at 3pm

Admission: $54 to $148 from Sistic (call 6348-5555 or go to www.sistic.com.sg)