A Midsummer Night’s Dream at Bristol Old Vic – Review

‘The course of true love never did run smooth.’ (Lysander, Act I, Scene i)

A Midsummer Night’s Dream Full Company. Credit: Simon Annand.

Puppets have been in vogue for ‘grown-up’ theatre since War Horse stormed the National Theatre and Handspring Puppet Company are back with a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream at Bristol Old Vic. From Michael Morpurgo’s moving children’s tale to Shakespeare’s carnivalesque comedy, Handspring had much to live up to following their sell-out triumph in the West End.

With gleeful comedy and playful acting, the company carried the production on a raucously funny and rude ride from the Mechanicals intermingling with the audience pre-show to lovers tiffs that blossomed into full-blown play-fights. It was a mischievous, dream world of wild love and magical enterprise.

The play was full to the brim with puppetry, of all different sorts and made from found objects, carved wood, tools and borrowed things. The play was a little too full of puppets. Tom Morris, the director, decided to draw attention to both puppet and puppeteer, eliminating the idea that the actor can embody both simultaneously. This came about onstage predominately with small puppets crafted to look like the actors but too small to be able to see their faces. They would be left sat in still images, while the actors carried on a scene or the actors would interact with their puppet counterparts, as though dolls, or parts of themselves to direct their speech to. This felt an uncomfortably disorientating idea and I heard audience members confused about what this doubling meant. At times it was successful as a still image created with the puppets, which could make a revealing comparison with the action. The technique allowed the actors greater freedom, especially as lovers, to interact among themselves. There was never any sympathy for these puppets, however, and essentially they were unrealistic and useless.

Saskia Portway (Titania). Credit: Simon Annand.

Further doubling, in a more usual sense, was made in the casting. At the start, Hippolyta was seen carving a large wooden head which will become the fairy queen, Titania, both played by Saskia Portway. Similarly, Theseus and Oberon are also doubled-up by David Ricardo Pearce. These carved, giant mask-like ‘puppets’ were the most successful in the production. Held up high above the actors’ heads, the fairy King and Queen were made imposingly mystical, towering over the stage and the human-sized characters. Productions often find it difficult to heighten the contrast between the human characters and the fairies, but puppets were used here to establish this difference.

On the opposite scale, imagine a collection of small, found objects; imagine an oil can (sort of snout shaped), a garden fork and saw (paws with claws), a hammer (leg) and straw basket (body) brought together by individual actors to create an almost dog-like, not quite identifiable magic creature. This was Puck. His lines became like chorus, with different voices and moments of unison speaking. Able to fleetingly appear and disappear as whims directed, created from objects held hidden by the ensemble, he was truly magic.

Humble slats of wood were manipulated by the company in what they describe as ‘plank language’. These became the lilting sea and breathing boundaries, forest trees fitted into groves on the stage, even musical instruments as they were played by the actors sounding like African drumming. It was a simple prop, used well, but somewhat rudimentary.

Most hilarious (and more than a little risqué) was the contraption quite literally holding ‘Bottom’. His transformation into an ‘ass’ was, cleverly picking up on both the pun on ‘ass’ and ‘bottom’, turned backwards first, bare-bottomed, on a donkey shaped frame mechanism. Shakespeare’s lines were therefore turned into dirty, humorous puns as we looked at a bare bottom while the characters talked about the ‘ass’ Titania has fallen in love with. Miltos Yerolemou, who had clearly endured a good wax, carried this farcical character with aplomb – the play’s clowning comic highlight.

All ends with an almost sinisterly erotic scene of love making, which Oberon and Titania magically coerce the couples into, the actors no longer holding carved wooden masks but inside full-bodied, mechanicalised constructions. They positioned the limbs of each of the lovers as though hinged puppets. Demetrius still wore a purple ribbon, symbolising influence of magic over him, tied around his wrist. Puck’s epilogue was cut, leaving an image which renders the audience under no allusions of who was pulling all the strings.

This dirty and filthy interpretation, with pagan energy and bare faced ‘cheek’ is entertaining throughout, if not always effective in its conception.

Until 4 May at Bristol Old Vic.

Disclaimer: Review previously published in an edited form by The Student Journals.