Handspring Puppet Company’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream is due to transfer to the Barbican in February. It is produced in partnership with Bristol Old Vic where I originally saw the production last year.

At the beginning of 2013, War Horse celebrated its 2000th West End production and Handspring Puppet Company have ridden forward from the beautiful puppetry of the National Theatre’s starry production to new successes in another realm of puppetry, here dealing with Shakespeare.

There is a lot to be said of theatres jumping on the bandwagon of commercial success. Lyn Gardner has recently critiqued the frequency of star actors being used, however fantastic they might be in their roles, to sell Shakespearean shows that otherwise are average, mediocre or uninspiring. Puppets are in vogue. I don’t know anyone with cultural kudos who hasn’t seen or doesn’t want to see War Horse. So perhaps I shouldn’t be, given this puppet phase, but I am hugely surprised that this production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream has been deemed successful enough to transfer to the Barbican.

In my original review of the production, I called it ‘a raucously funny and rude ride’ but ‘a little too full of puppets’. The production goes for puppet overload, in all different forms, possibly even challenging how we conceive the idea of a ‘puppet’. But some of these ideas were fundamentally ineffective, nay, even distracting. Tom Morris, the director, in the programme notes said he decided to bring attention on stage to both the puppet and the puppeteer, in an attempt to eliminate the idea that the actor can embody both simultaneously.

The stage is set with soft wash blue and golden light, the band cajoles us with calypso music and a pair of grand classical columns exotically impose on the space of the Swan Theatre’s stage. Commissioned, as the programme notes, by artistic director Gregory Doran’s predecessor Michael Boyd, this production of Antony and Cleopatra is co-produced by the RSC with two American theatres and the company includes both British and American actors. The tragic story of intense passion that wrenches two hearts apart and reunites them together, across war zones and power struggles, and nations and political marriage, has resonated in popular culture through the ages.

Joaquina Kalukango (Cleopatra) and Jonathan Cake (Mark Antony), photo: Hugo Glendinning
Joaquina Kalukango (Cleopatra) and Jonathan Cake (Mark Antony), photo: Hugo Glendinning

Richard Burton and Elizabethan Taylor famously played Mark Antony and Cleopatra, in the 1963 film Cleopatra. It is famous for being one of the most expensive films ever made, but what drew the crowds was the couple’s turbulent and public off-screen relationship begun during filming, recently made into a docu-drama for the BBC. The moral scandal and expense that almost bankrupted 20th Century Fox brought the film bad publicity, but it eventually won four Academy Awards and immortalised Richard and Elizabeth’s relationship, in fact making them almost synonymous with the characters.

Now, of course, Shakespeare’s play exists on an entirely other plane to a huge-budget, stellar-cast film. But the driving force of Shakespeare’s plot is the burning flame of passion between the title characters; everything revolves around their absolute unbreakable bond of intense lust and unconditional love. The central relationship in the text has the same power as Richard and Elizabeth’s, and unfortunately for the RSC, in their production the sexual tension, absolute yearning and dramatic chemistry was sadly lacking, nay even absent. Jonathan Cake playing Antony is ripped and tall and appears mismatched with the small, unconvincingly seductive Joaquina Kalukango as Cleopatra.