Thomas Tyrrell is enchanted by Sherman Theatre’s unique bilingual production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
‘Why Bottom, thou art translated!’ You have to wait until Act 2 for the gimmick of Sherman Theatre’s new production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream to emerge, but it makes a huge impact when it does. After several scenes in Shakespeare’s own English, Leah Gaffey’s Puck enters with a cheerful “Shwmae” and stamps on the stage to get the subtitles flickering hesitantly into life. Hereafter, Welsh is the exclusive language of the fairy characters like Titania and Oberon. As the play goes on, Welsh also become the language of enchantment—Bottom and the four lovers switch from English into Welsh as Puck’s tricks take effect—and finally the language of love, as the play concludes with a triple wedding. An index of the effectiveness of this take is how often I found myself believing I understood the Welsh sections perfectly, or found myself glancing up for subtitles during the English sections.
It’s a winning coup de theatre in a transformative and cheerfully post-modern production, where the freedom afforded by the Welsh has loosened many of the restraints binding more faithful interpretations. After seeing many productions that try to transpose their plots onto overly specific times and places, it’s rather a relief to find something so happily unmoored. Three-piece suits mix with torn jeans and hoodies mix with preppy fifties skirts and cardies; it’s all wholly appropriate for the characters, and adds to the fun of the show. Gender swapping Oberon and Titania is a popular move, but the freedom of the Welsh translation allows this to happen more naturally, and the motivation for the falling out between the fairy King and Queen emerges clearly. Sion Ifan looks somewhat awkward as Theseus, crammed into a comic-opera uniform, but plays Oberon with a marvellously larger-than-life aristocratic flair, bringing down the house in his interval duet with Sion Ifan’s Puck.
It’s been common to add a gay theme to the plot by recasting Shakespeare’s two enchanted couples as three men and one girl; here that gender ratio is inverted, with three girls and one man in the cast. Lauren Morais’s Lysanna is particularly good as the slacker lesbian who ensnares the passion of Dena Davies Hermia, and Rebecca Wilson gets great comic mileage out of Helena even in the scenes where she’s an unspeaking presence, staring as raptly at the concluding farce as if it were David Tennant doing Hamlet. Only Tom Mumford as Demetrius doesn’t really get a chance to shine, though his switching between English and Welsh is as fluid and natural as the rest of the cast.
It’s hard to think of anything else you could wish for in this production: it’s funny, charming, modern, eye-catching, and it couldn’t be done anywhere else in the world. Highly recommended.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream plays at The Sherman Theatre until 29th October. Tickets are available here.