A Midsummer Night's Dream: Cardiff Open Air Theatre

A Midsummer Night’s Dream: Cardiff Open Air Theatre

Thomas Tyrrell hails forty years of theatrical enchantment in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, at Cardiff Open Air Theatre.

Theatre in the park makes a natural fit for William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, a story of enchanted forest, mischievous fairies, and bewitch, baffled, bewildered lovers. Way back in 1984, it was Everyman Theatre’s second ever production (after the slightly less intuitive A Winter’s Tale). Over the course of their forty years of annual theatrical festivities, as celebrated in a lavishly illustrated programme, they’ve performed it six times previously, but their seventh production shows no sign of feeling stale; it has many of the tricks and reversals of modern productions, and some fresh ideas of its own.

In previous years, we’ve had Shakespeare adaptations set in the high finance world of the eighties, mid Wales between the wars and the swinging sixties. It’s an immediate sign of confidence that director Paul Clements chooses to break with this formula and do the play relatively straight, mixing modern and relatively formal costuming in a way that fits the characters without feeling either period or anachronistic. Last year’s production felt somewhat in the shadow of their blowout musical Little Shop of Horrors, to the extent of being performed on the same set, slightly redressed. Here the set is a stone grotto, with some fringed poles waved to symbolise the forest—a relatively bare set that has a slight garden centre feel, but this only serves to concentrate our attention on the excellent performances of a play that’s clearly a product of intensive blocking and rehearsal. The plot of Midsummer Night’s Dream requires the befuddled lovers to be parted, lost, and stumble over each other in a way that can feel very artificial on a bare stage, but performers and director here combine to make these separations and encounters feel natural in a way that only heightens the comedy.

Of these lovers, Thomas Davidson as Demetrius delivers in the most individual performance, putting in a brooding, aggressive take on the role like Heathcliffe in a jumper, sometimes to the point of being almost too savage for the comedy. Kate Willets is perfectly cast as the pint-sized Hermia, while Harriet Maxwell manages the tricky task of salvaging some dignity and sympathy from the scenes where the abject Helena begs Demetrius to treat her like his spaniel—so eloquently conceived and performed that there was not one snigger from the back. Delightfully, they follow many modern productions in gender-swapping one of the four lovers for an LGBTQ angle, and Lysander here transforms into Lysandra, ably played by Ruby Wilson. Like every other time I’ve seen this done, it fits beautifully with Shakespeare’s themes of change and transformation while freshening the comedy up wonderfully—the chaotic catfight between the enchanted lovers is an absolute highlight. More such wokery, please.

The faeries make an interestingly varied crew: Victoria Walters gives us an unexpectedly martial Puck, in pauldrons, beret, kilt and fishnet tights, together with Joshua Ogle’s bare-chested rock God performance as Oberon. Meanwhile, Titania (Rebecca Baines) and her court are the gauzy-winged, vaguely pre-Raphaelite crew you’d expect. It’s a strikingly sharp visual divide to complement the rift in Oberon and Titania’s relationship, and I enjoyed how Walters’ sterner portrayal of Puck is undercut by her immense flexibility and energy as a performer, with some scenes almost requiring a gymnastic routine from her.

Ogle and Baines have immense chemistry, and manage the unusual feat of being more compelling in their roles as the Athenian and Amazonian monarchs, Theseus and Hippolyta, than their faery counterparts, bringing a lovely tenderness and sense of partnership to their opening scenes, while Ogle’s Oberon is sometimes too shouty for the finer cadences to come through.

Rounding out the cast is Bottom and the mechanicals, led by Everyman Theatre stalwart Sarah Bawler, who once again delivers a funny and inventive performance, making great play with the height difference between her and Oscar Eckersley’s Thisbe. I said it years ago, and I’ll say it again now: when are we going to see her play Falstaff?

Without cutting anything much, the play fairly zips along, never missing a laugh line but delivering the blank verse with a speed and fluency professional performers might envy. This trim, energetic performance of Midsummer Night’s Dream is perfect for a lazy summer night and will have theatre-goers in their beds long before the iron tongue of midnight tolls twelve.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream plays as part of the Cardiff Open Air Theatre Festival until July 29th. Information and tickets are available via the Everyman website.