The Young Vic’s current production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream is not the whimsical comedy about naïve lovers and pesky fairies that one may expect. It is an earthy (literally) exploration of the dark side of human relationships, and the role of theatre in society. Director Joe Hill-Gibbons said in an interview with The Guardian that Shakespeare’s Dream is “really quite a deep and dark play about how difficult it is to sustain relationships, and the way people manipulate and hurt each other, even torture each other, intentionally or otherwise”.[1] This production, which cuts the play down into a one-act show lasting two hours – much like the Donmar recently did with their critically acclaimed trio of Julius Caesar, Henry IV, and The Tempest – is both intriguing and entertaining, and a valuable addition to the centuries-long canon of performances of this play.

The stage for this production is made up of a large semi circle of churned mud. There is no foliage; the forest is entirely left to the imagination of the audience. This gives the production a bleak, cold feeling and, to emphasise this, the majority of the play is performed under harsh lighting that saps what little colour there is from the stage. A large mirror covers the back wall, allowing the audience always to witness themselves in the act of watching the play, and Hill-Gibbons utilises this wonderfully to explore the metatheatrical elements which litter A Midsummer Night’s Dream – but more of that later.

Before discussing what Hill-Gibbons’s production gets right, it is necessary to say that it is not flawless. The clear desire to explore the darker side of the events that occur in the forest does come at a cost for the opening sequence in Athens. Act I has certainly suffered from the need to whittle the play down to its two hour run time, and as a result its scenes feel rushed: the audience can feel the need to get through this exposition to reach “the good bits” later in the play. That being said, I don’t think this production would be as powerful if it was interrupted by an interval, and cuts have to be made somewhere in the script if the play is to be made shorter.[2] The reason for this hurried start begins to emerge as the magical love potions start to be administered, most notably when Oberon (Michael Gould) drugs Titania (Anastasia Hille), and in Puck’s (Llyod Hutchinson) use of the potion on the Lysander (John Dagleish).

The sexual aggression is palpable as Oberon lies behind the sleeping Titania. Nestling up right behind her, Gould spits with venom his desire that she become besotted with whatever she sees when she awakes, “Be it ounce, or cat, or bear, / Pard, or boar with bristled hair” (II.ii.30-31). As Oberon speaks these lines while lying in the mud behind his sleeping wife, one starts to feel the message this production inspires: love is gritty and earthy, and often tied to vengeance and violence. This unsanitised depiction is made explicit in the events that immediately follow the drugging of Titania. Lysander’s attempt to woo Hermia (Jemima Rooper) – “One turf shall serve as pillow for us both” (II.ii.41) – is made far more sexually aggressive than the text necessarily implies. Here, on the Young Vic stage, Lysander tries to force himself on Hermia, who has to fight him off before he will relent. It is notable that this incident happens before any love potions have been administered, adding weight to Hill-Gibbons’s uncomfortable assertion that much of the play is in fact the characters acting according to their human nature: “Fairies are stories we tell ourselves about things we can’t deal with or take responsibility for”.[3]

In the act of drugging Lysander after the pair have fallen asleep apart, Puck vindictively pours the whole bottle of potion on the sleeping man’s face from head height, and then violently beats him with the empty bottle while shouting, “When thou wak’st, let love forbid / Sleep his seat on thy eyelid” (II.ii.80-81). The message driven home in these moments is that there is nothing necessarily fantastical or mysterious about the love that the audience witnesses play out upon the stage. These characters act out of vengeance and spite, and love is often a dirty affair. This is literally so in the case of this production: as the characters get increasingly involved in the tortuous love story of the play, so they get more and more caked in the mud that makes up the stage. Whether fighting with each other over the object of their desire (Lysander and Demetrius) or rolling around on the ground in fits of passion (Bottom and Titania), the characters get physically filthy as they get down and dirty. One does not have to be a cold-hearted cynic to see this production’s point: we are generally sold an idealised and sanitised idea of love, and have been from antiquity; Hill-Gibbons’s Dream stages an alternative take.

One of the brilliant things about this production is that it makes full use of the Rude Mechanicals, and particularly Bottom (Leo Bill) in order not only to provide comic relief, but also to use the comedy of their scenes to add to the message of the play. Leo Bill plays the role of Bottom wonderfully. Resembling John Lennon and bouncing around with the energy of Tigger from Winnie the Pooh, he brings constant humour to the play and to the mechanicals’ metatheatrical scenes. But one notable feature of his performance certainly does not come from Shakespeare’s script: the songs he sings. Before he gets transformed into an ass by Puck, he runs around the stage singing Aerosmith’s 1998 power ballad, “I Don’t Wanna Miss A Thing”, and later, when waking the sleeping Titania, he sings Maria McKee’s 1990 hit, “Show Me Heaven”. These seemingly incongruous additions to the sixteenth-century script drew hearty laughs from the audience, but these inclusions also fit intelligently into the overarching examination of love that drives this production.

Both of these songs were theme tunes for 90s Hollywood films – Armageddeon (1998) and Days of Thunder (1990) – and both, lyrically, are simple arrangements of banal platitudes: “I could stay awake / Just to hear you breathing”, “I’ve shivers / Down my spine / And it feels divine”, etc. By bringing these songs into the muddy surroundings of this darkly comic performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Hill-Gibbons is able to poke fun at this mass-manufactured, sanitised portrayal of love that pervades music and Hollywood. In a final flick, he uses the mechanicals and the mirror at the back of the stage as a vehicle for examining the role of theatre and spectatorship in society, and the connection between the worlds of the stage and the audience.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream is arguably Shakespeare’s most metatheatrical play – more so than either Twelfth Night or Hamlet. By enacting not only the mechanicals’ performance of Pyramus and Thisbe at the play’s conclusion, but also the casting and rehearsal of their production, Shakespeare ensures the audience are made very aware of the dynamics of theatre as they watch the narrative of A Midsummer Night’s Dream unfold. Hill-Gibbons uses this aspect of the play – particularly the mechanicals’ concern to ensure that anyone who watches Pyramus and Thisbe understands that the events and characters contained within it are a fictional – to evoke a layered exploration of reality in this production.

The hilarity that the entire cast of mechanicals brings to this tragic love story is fantastic, and it enables the performance to fit very well with Hills-Gibbons’s wider ambition of parodying idealised depictions of love. When speaking of both the mechanicals’ production and the play embedded within Hamlet, Hill-Gibbons has said, “Both are concerned with the idea that theatre can be incredibly real – so real that it’s dangerous”,[4] and he utilises the mechanicals to explore the collapsing boundary between the real and the imagined at the edge of a stage – something particularly relevant to a play that frames its own events as a dream.

It is somewhat clichéd to describe theatre as a mirror of society, and Hill-Gibbons plays on this through his use of a mirror to cover the back wall of the stage. Not only can the audience always see themselves in the act of witnessing the production they are also transported onto the stage itself: through the reflection, the audience members become the backdrop to the play. In addition to this, many of the play’s characters (none of whom leave the stage for a single moment throughout the production) spend their time gazing into the mirror when not directly involved in the action, meaning that we, as members of the audience, see them seeing us in this reflected reality.

Just before Quince’s (Matthew Steer) prologue introduces the performance of Pyramus and Thisbe, the cast paint over most of the mirror with black paint, progressively severing the link to this other world with which the characters have become so fascinated. At Pyramus and Thisbe’s conclusion, the boundary between the two plays starts to collapse, fracturing the events on the stage as a whole. As Thisbe (Aaron Heffernan) dies, Bottom, playing Pyramus, is busy rolling in the mud with Hippolyta, played by Anastasia Hille who doubled as Titania. This highlights the three levels on which the theatre of A Midsummer Night’s Dream functions, and the permeability of the boundaries between them. Theseus’s court, themselves trapped within their own fiction (as the mirror has constantly reminded the audience), watches on as the mechanicals stage their play, but the two fictions collide before the audience’s eyes in Bottom and Titania’s embrace.

This has disturbing implications for the ability of theatre to reach across the fourth wall and impact the reality of its audience, and the production ends with a stark reminder of this message. Gradually there builds up a frenzy of noise and the characters start running around the stage, and amid the confusion you can hear Demetrius (Oliver Alvin-Wilson) yelling “are we awake?”, highlighting the unreality of the characters’ position and questioning just how far the dream of the Dream extends. As the chaos subsides, the actors run upstage and desperately reach for the parts of the mirror still unobscured by the recently applied black paint. In this final moment the actors, mostly caked in the mud from the stage, strive for the connection to the illusory world of the reflected audience. We are left to wonder what exactly stops them running the other way and jumping through the fourth wall into our world.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream is at the Young Vic until this Saturday April 1st. For more information and tickets see here.

 

[1] Matt Trueman, “Joe Hill-Gibbins: ‘Theatre can be incredibly real – it’s dangerous’”, The Guardian 25th January 2017. https://www.theguardian.com/stage/2017/jan/25/joe-hill-gibbins-midsummer-nights-dream-young-vic-interview

[2] When adapting the play into an opera, Peter Pears and Benjamin Britten condensed the whole of Act I of A Midsummer Night’s Dream into a single sentence. Lysander says to Hermia about Athenian law: “Compelling thee to marry with Demetrius”

[3] Matt Trueman, “Joe Hill-Gibbins: ‘Theatre can be incredibly real – it’s dangerous’”, The Guardian 25th January 2017. https://www.theguardian.com/stage/2017/jan/25/joe-hill-gibbins-midsummer-nights-dream-young-vic-interview

[4] Ibid.