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Reason wars with imagination in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, but they aren’t the only primal forces at work in this most miraculous of comedies. There’s Shakespeare’s enchanting wordplay to consider—the elegant couplets he gives courtly lovers to whisper, the rhythmic, elemental power in the conjurings of his aggrieved immortals, the easy grace of the nobility’s pun-filled rhetorical banter, the lowbrow pleasures of the commoners’ ribaldry. The Royal Shakespeare Company, in residence at the Eisenhower Theater through mid-March, adds to these a superb cast and a surrealist production that might have acquired its sense of wonder somewhere under the Cirque du Soleil’s big top. The result is pure theatrical magic.
This is a play, remember, about two Athenian couples who, wandering in the wood outside the city, become entangled in the intrigues of Oberon, ruler of the fairies, and Titania, his strong-willed mate. Athens’ sovereign, Theseus, and his Amazon bride-to-be, Hippolyta, become involved, as does a buffoonish lot of tradesmen bent on staging a “tragical comedy” for the royal wedding. The opportunities for invention are literally limitless—though directors too often are bound by traditional notions of what fairies, Athenians, and enchanted forests should look like.
The RSC’s Adrian Noble has left such details largely to the audience’s imagination, which seems quite the right thing to do in an age where cinematic special-effects wizardry has left us all a trifle jaded. He and designer Anthony Ward have set the play in a series of spare, boxy rooms, each defined only by taut fabric walls and a door (or a row of doors). The two sets of Athenian lovers are arrayed in simple modern clothing, differentiated from each other only by hue: purple for Hermia, orange for Helena, blue for Demetrius, green for Lysander. Theseus sports a smashing gold waistcoat, while Hippolyta decks herself out in an uproar of fuchsia velvet and feathers; when the actors who portray them change parts to play Oberon and Titania, they do it in much the same garb (Oberon gets a starry blue-violet cloak, while Titania sheds Hippolyta’s long jacket to show rather more shoulder and cleavage).
Mischievous Puck and his female counterpart, the unjustly nameless First Fairy, first materialize in midair, swinging acrobatically from giant green umbrellas and looking for all the world like a pair of fey Shakespearean Mary Poppinses. Later, Titania’s bower—lavishly described in the text as “a bank where the wild thyme blows, Where oxlips and the nodding violet grows, Quite overcanopied with luscious woodbine, With sweet musk roses, and with eglantine”—turns out to be an upended, plushly upholstered levitating parasol in the same shade as its mistress’ gown. (A program essay notes that this device is a nod to an earlier RSC production directed by Peter Brook, in which Titania reclined on a “spectacular red feather suspended in the air.”) Clearly, this new production wasn’t designed with traditionalists in mind, so if you’re like the boob who complained at intermission last weekend that he preferred Shakespeare done in “medieval” dress, don’t bother seeing it—you’ll only annoy your seatmates, who’ll know that neither Shakespeare nor Theseus has much to do with the Middle Ages. If, however, you’re the sort who appreciates self-confidence in a cast, don’t bother finishing this review—call for tickets now. The RSC’s ensemble, down to its least member, is that assured.
Alex Jennings and Lindsay Duncan in particular, asTheseus/Oberon and Titania/Hippolyta, are just glorious. Jennings is the kind of actor who can convey whimsy, disdain, bemusement, and outrage all with the same eyebrow, and he positively gloats over his lines, rolling them out in cadences as marvelously sonorous as Gielgud’s or Welles’. Duncan has the sort of icy beauty and regal carriage that make you want to believe she’s the queen of the fairies, and her intense, focused delivery does real justice to the tremendous poetry Shakespeare gave Titania, illuminating the character’s pride and her sorrow alike. Both actors inhabit their roles with immense authority, with a clear understanding of the shadowy power these immortals wield; when Titania describes to Oberon the havoc their estrangement has wrought in the natural world, you’ll have to keep yourself from getting up to check the weather. And when, after their rift is mended, the royal couple dances with the fairy court, susceptible onlookers (led on by Sue Lefton’s graceful choreography and Ilona Sekacz’s brooding, ethereal score) will feel the earth move under their tread.
The other players are cut from similarly elegant cloth. Barry Lynch invests Puck, Oberon’s wild-at-heart henchman, with quirky energy and a dangerous air of barely suppressed riot. Lynch’s perform-ance is remarkably nuanced—there are places where he acts with his toes—and there’s an erotic charge to it, an undertone of sexuality that extends to Puck’s interactions with Oberon. It emphasizes the pair’s supernatural nature and lends added meaning (I’m not sure I want to dwell too closely on what meaning) to Oberon’s longing for Titania’s beautiful young changeling.
Among the humans, Desmond Barrit is plainly the standout in the plum role of Bottom, the rotund weaver and shameless ham who dominates the amateur theatricals. Barrit clowns magnificently without ever letting the performance descend to slapstick, and he never once loses sight of his character’s essential dignity. Bottom is this play’s Wise Fool, after all, the only character who really grasps the import of his woodland “dream,” and Barrit shows his acting mettle by the ease with which he makes the transition from vulgar comedy to genuinely moving despair during a scene near the end of the play-within-a-play.
Monica Dolan and Daniel Evans, as Hermia and her swain Lysander, are both perfectly adorable, so sweet you want to take them home and pet them. Kevin Robert Doyle plays Demetrius as a tightly wound sort of fellow, but he controls the frenzy so well that the character never becomes annoying, and Emily Raymond infuses her poor, scorned Helena with real pathos. From fairy king to bellows-mender, every last member of the cast is a gifted physical comedian, and Noble gives them plenty of hysterical business, most of it broad and much of it as ribald and rude as the coarsest groundling could wish for. (The funniest bit may well be Helena’s line about how Demetrius has driven her “past the bounds of maiden’s patience,” which Raymond delivers along with a knee to Doyle’s groin.)
I could go on like this for a while, but there’s no way to capture on the page the enchantment these players conjure on the Eisenhower boards. A Midsummer Night’s Dream is above all things an actors’ play, and the RSC cast brings to it an exuberance, a theatrical brio, and an infectious passion for Shakespeare’s puissant language. Together, they create an electric, exhilarating evening of theater—and if, as Puck famously suggests at the play’s conclusion, it’s nothing but a passing dream, it’s a dream worth sleeping ’round the clock for.CP