Review: Warmth, charm and fun aplenty with the RSC’s new Dream

Lucy Ellinson (Puck), Andrew Bingham (behind), Alex Powell (Flute),  (Snug, behind), Sue Downing (Quince) and Patrick Bentley (Starveling)
Lucy Ellinson (Puck), Andrew Bingham (behind), Alex Powell (Flute), (Snug, behind), Sue Downing (Quince) and Patrick Bentley (Starveling)

Peter Ormerod reviews the RSC’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream: A Play for the Nation at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford

A play for the nation? There’s a claim. The RSC will soon tour this production, joined by members of local amateur theatre companies. There’s much to commend that approach, but the danger is clear: that the quest for the broadest possible audience will result will in a safe and conservative presentation of a play that can reach transcendent heights when directors dare it to.

So while this production falls some way short of the standards set in previous years by the likes of Peter Brook and Tim Supple, it is nevertheless a success on its own terms. It is rarely less than entertaining, and is frequently very funny, underpinned by Lucy Ellinson’s wonderfully winning Puck. It’s hard to imagine a more delightful stage presence.

Things begin a little stickily, however. There is a problem with the believability of certain relationships that are essential to the story: those between Demetrius, Helena, Lysander and Hermia. The verbal and physical comedy is a little uncertain, the performers perhaps a little inhibited.

But the show loosens up considerably with the welcome arrival of the Mechanicals, a troupe of amateur players played here by a troupe of amateur players: The Nonentities from Kidderminster. They are tremendous throughout, every inch the match of the RSC’s professionals. Their evident thrill at being on the stage comes at no cost to their discipline or control: these are accomplished comic actors from whom many seasoned performers could learn plenty.

And by the time we reach the forest, we are in enchanted territory: Oberon and Titania bring charisma and grace, while the schoolchildren who comprise the fairy train perform with skill and charm. The transformation of Bottom (Chris Clarke) into an ass, with whom a bewitched Titania falls in love, is worked delightfully and played to full comic effect. Meanwhile, Puck is everywhere, spreading almost tangible fairy magic and charming mischief with every expertly-placed step. It’s all played out on a delicately decorated stage and to a relaxed lounge jazz accompaniment.

It may not be especially bold or innovative, then, and it may not change any lives, but this Dream, directed with warmth by Erica Whyman, at least does justice to the text, and stands up as light entertainment of the highest quality. And that’s more than good enough.

* A Midsummer Night’s Dream: A Play for the Nation runs until March 5 and will return to Stratford from June 15 to July 16. Call 01789 403493 for tickets.