A Midsummer Night’s Dream in York

The idea of creating a “pop-up” Elizabethan theatre for a summer season of Shakespeare in York was an excellent one, but would the quality of performances justify the effort and expense? After a disappointing Richard III, I was doubtful: this production was weak on narrative – it is indispensable for the histories that the audience should be assisted in identifying who is who – and the actor playing the villain king had neither the stage presence nor the projection of text which the part requires. The Macbeth in contrast was very strong on narrative, the tragic chain of events moving swiftly and clearly to their end, but the deeper, psychological dimensions of the play were glossed over.

And then came this wonderful Midsummer Night’s Dream, the finest production of the play I have seen since Peter Brook’s legendary version.  Indeed it shared some features with the latter. Accompanied by Chris Madin’s evocative music, and exotically designed by Sara Perks, the forest scenes were exhilarating in their acrobatic movements, stylised posturings and energetic interplay. On top of this, director Juliet Forster introduced her own personal imprint for the piece.  She took her themes of power and gender from two of its starting points: the subjugation of Hippolyta by Theseus; and the imposition of choice of husband by Egeus on Hermia. The antics in the forest are portrayed as Hippolyta’s fantasy dream.  She becomes Oberon, thereby able to exact revenge on Theseus as Titania, ensnaring him/her in a love nest with Bottom.

The conceit worked brilliantly. In the first act Amanda Ryan as the Amazon queen flounces down the steps in her uncomfortable but required feminine attire; and later leaning over the staircase, she listens to, and reflects on, the intransigent Egeus complaining about his daughter’s refusal to obey his dictates. It carries over to the relationships between the lovers, a feisty no-nonsense Hermia sparring with her suitors, and Helena resolutely refusing to succumb to their insincere advances. One single aspect jarred. The Theseus of Antony Bunsee seemed not to know what to make of the gender change to Titania; perhaps an actor with a less masculine demeanour would have been able to cope with it more convincingly.

Everything else fell seamlessly into place, not the least the rude mechanicals, led by Paul Hawkyard as an exuberantly extrovert Bottom; they served up a highly entertaining Pyramus and Thisbe without resorting to cliché. This was an outstanding evening of Shakespearian theatre combining superb stagecraft with a fascinating interpretation which in no sense betrayed the Bard’s fertile set of images and sentiments.