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A Midsummer Night’s Dream

The Guardian, 11th June 2003, Michael Billington

It must be hellishly difficult to restage this most famous play in this familiar setting. But Michael Pennington succeeds in this modern-dress production by going back to Shakespearean basics: he puts great emphasis on clarity of speech and on the metaphysical journey all the characters undergo.

You see this most clearly in John Hodgkinson’s Theseus and Phillipa Peak’s Hippolyta. He, in the performance of the night, starts as a hilariously uptight, brass-balled ex-soldier who tells Philostrate to “stir up the Athenian youth to merriments” as if it were a military diktat. He also signally fails to establish any line of communication with Peak’s icily disdainful, dubiously colonised Hippolyta. By the end of the evening, however, they have thawed sufficiently to join with amateur thesps in a rousing Zorba-like dance.

The lovers have an easier task in that they undergo an obvious transformation in the wood. Pennington sharpens the testy rivalry between the men by making Nick Fletcher’s Lysander a smooth charmer and Nicholas Burns’s Demetrius a premature fogey in a pinstripe suit. Equally, Claire Redcliffe’s volatile Hermia and Victoria Woodward’s snitching Helena hardly look as if they would have been best chums at Bedales. Their collective change is matched by that of the mechanicals, who start out as isolated individuals and end up, led by John Conroy’s preening Cowardesque Quince and Peter Forbes’s bullish Bottom, as a tatty ensemble whose play is far from contemptible.

Pennington has the most trouble with the fairies. They eerily emerge from and disappear into Paul Farnsworth’s fake bushes, and when Joseph Alessi’s menacing Puck announces that “night’s swift dragons cut the clouds full fast”, you feel a genuine chill. But he slightly overplays the murderous hostility between Dale Rapley’s Oberon and Issy van Randwyck’s Titania: she, in particular, spits out each phrase of the “forgeries of jealousy” speech with such venom that she overplays the vision of natural chaos.

Like the overdone joke about the unexpectedly ringing mobile phones – Bottom’s even going off during the Pyramus and Thisbe episode – this is easily rectifiable. What really matters is that Pennington shows how all the characters are “translated” by their adventures in the wood and conveys the play’s youthful exuberance. Not having seen a Regent’s Park Dream for years, I was also reminded how the genius of the place aids enjoyment to make this a captivating Shakespearean experience.

The Daily Telegraph, 11th June 2003, Charles Spencer

Grey skies, the smell of sizzling bratwurst, and hundreds of people struggling to get into their anoraks quietly with the inevitable arrival of the first drops of rain. It can only mean one thing – the English “summer” has arrived, and so has the Dream at Regent’s Park.

A few years ago, I feared that the opening of Shakespeare’s Globe might have a dire effect on the box office at the Open Air Theatre, but encouragingly there always seems to be room for more Shakespeare in Britain. Artistic director Ian Talbot reports that last year’s season was a success despite the terrible weather, and speaks gratefully of the support of his “ever-growing audience”.

You can see why people keep coming back. There is something magical about approaching a theatre through a beautifully tended rose garden rather than the mean streets of the West End; the catering is excellent, and the sylvan setting somehow creates a spell of enchantment even on the greyest of days.

And there is something deep in the English psyche that actively enjoys a bit of discomfort. It could have been my imagination, but I thought a detected something like a collective sigh of masochistic pleasure when the rain started to fall (mercifully briefly). A chap sitting near me just put the Evening Standard on his head as a makeshift hat and clearly didn’t mind a bit that he looked a total wally. It’s not only Shakespeare that makes the Regent’s Park theatre a celebration of our national character.

The actor Michael Pennington is directing this year’s modern-dress Dream and he makes a pretty good fist of it. Like most Regent’s Park performances, it’s fresh, funny (I particularly liked the mischievous mobile phone gags), and a little bit rough round the edges.

The fairies, looking like a cross between Arthur Rackham’s illustrations and Vivienne Westwood fashion victims, are the major disappointment, a singularly charmless crew. As Titania, Issy van Randwyck comes on more like Lady Macbeth than the Queen of the Fairies, sporting a hideous wig and a great gash of red lipstick that bury her usually irresistible charm.

Joseph Alessi is a pallid Puck, while Dale Rapley as Oberon appears to be labouring under the delusion that the secret of performing Shakespeare is to shout a lot. His deafening delivery of “I know a bank where the wild thyme grows” could probably be heard in Camden Town, but it would give no more pleasure there than it does in the theatre.

Elsewhere, matters are far more engaging. I have rarely seen a more winning crew of mechanicals. Peter Forbes is everything a Bottom should be, impossibly bumptious, sunnily funny and totally endearing: Jamie Beamish is a deliciously gauche Francis Flute: and I loved Gerard Carey’s slow, sly performance as Snug, the very Welsh joiner. The climatic performance of the play-within-the-play is both riotously funny and genuinely touching – which is just as it should be.

The lovers offer good value, too, with the girls making a particularly strong impression. It’s a joy to watch the pert Claire Refcliffe in the absurdly neat camping outfit reduced to mud-splattered fury as Hermia, while Victoria Woodward’s Helena – a delightfully big and strapping young woman – clearly terrifies Nicholas Burns’s city slicker of a Demetrius with her full-on sexuality.

John Hodgkinson is a hilariously ponderous, bristling, moustached Theseus, who might have stepped straight out of Bertie Wooster’s Drones Club, while Phillipa Peak, as his elegant but furious bride Hippolyta, spends the whole evening looking as though she is sucking on a lemon.

The fairies notwithstanding, it’s a richly enjoyable evening and, who knows, one day the sun might shine.

Teletext, 10th June 2003

Another year, another production of the Open Air’s stock hardy perennial.

Rumbustious and energetic, this is a sometimes slapstick but typically jovial affair which manages skilfully to wring laughs from every corner of the text. Much of the credit for this must go  to the director (better known fro his acting) Michael Pennington who can be pleased at most of the good clean fun.

The lovers are wide-eyed, preppy, carefree young things. They are set against dated looking elders in a production which (helped by Terry Davies’s excellent music) locates the mortals in modern Athens.

Against the linen and bobby socks the fairy kingdom is (gratingly) a punked up affair, all slap and rock-star attitude, with Joseph Alessi’s hard-nosed Puck leading the way.

Nick Fletcher’s Lysander is the pick of the lovers, although they all word superbly together, particularly during the woodland frenzy.

Peter Forbes’s Glaswegian Bottom is also impressive. Inspiring affection, he carries much of the production’s enormous, energetic fun. Whoever made his hilarious ass mask also deserves an immediate award for comic ingenuity.

Not all the joy and slapstick are welcome. John Hodgkinson’s Theseus, presented like an idiotic World War One general, is too buffoonish in his search for laughs.

Phillips Peak’s steely-eyes Hippolyta is entertaining but underdeveloped, which means that we lose any real awareness of the life she is giving up through marriage.

The fairies grate after a while.

Many productions decide to make them far too knowing, preventing the beauty and musicality of their language and imagery from shaping the play’s identity. There is also a strange and unwelcome thread of homoeroticism between Puck and Oberon which was left hanging in limbo.

Nevertheless, these remain minor gripes in a largely satisfying whole.

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