A DREAM OF PLANKS AND PUPPETS, AND AN UPTURNED ASS…
“Gentles, perhaps you wonder at this show. But wonder on…” says Peter Quince, lanky and earnest in a fairisle sweater. We might well boggle at this production, created at the Bristol Old Vic by Tom Morris in collaboration again with the Handspring puppeteers. Last spring it packed the house there, introducing a shape-shifting Puck as a collection of excitable hand-tools, a balletic ensemble of planks manoeuvred by the whole cast to represent forest, sea, starbursts and love itself, and Oberon and Titania holding great pale carved masks above their heads. As for the fairies, they became things of weird and terrifying otherness: broken dolls, a nightmare puppet, a skeletal giant moth.
I liked it, with reservations. Mostly concerned with the first scene, in which the four young people manipulated small puppets of themselves, distractingly and pointlessly. After that, as they became more human and vigorous and the inanimate objects more alive, I admitted feeling “a direct line to the folkloric, pagan, animist roots of rural Shakespeare”. Forgive the critical retrospection. But it is a treat to see a production as innovative as this growing, shedding the weaker bits , and becoming one of the 21st century’s first real landmark interpretations.
The changes serve pace and coherence: the opening, without puppetry, frees the lovers to be themselves. Alex Felton is an eager public-school blond Lysander (as the show goes on he becomes weepingly funny). The contrast of Akiya Henry’s Hermia and Naomi Cranston as a skinny disappointed Helena is lovely, and their brawl in the wood fabulously pure teenage rage. Ms Henry gets a personal round of applause for her ferocity. David Ricardo Pierce is a commanding Oberon/Theseus, and his queen – Saskia Portway – an androgynous striding figure, vibrant with female anger and mesmeric in that all-too topical speech about the dangerous dislocation of weather, the “drowned fields” caused by faery discord.
It is a play which should always make us a little uneasy, unsettled as well as captivated, so Morris’ use of puppetry, not naturalistic but nightmarish and fey, is useful. Shapes change, objects move, nothing is steady until the towering wood-gods step gently forward at the end, in harmony again over the stolen child. But it is also the most rousing of comedies and this too he fully exploits. The Rude Mechanicals even attack the Barbican’s bland atmosphere by invading the auditorium before the start. I could not work out whether Saikat Ahamed, clambering over the seats and talking gibberish, was a confused exchange-student or a cast member, and tried to be polite in French. He is Snug the Joiner, and in this cheerfully free-form interpretation gets portrayed as not speaking much English. Fair enough, in a modern nation of immigrant manual labourers. Bottom, of course is Greek: Miltos Yerolemou, sublime both in his dignified overacting and in the courageous translation into an upside-down, back-to-front, bare-bum upwards mutant donkey-legged bicycle…Oh, all right, you had to be there. If you want a different, beguiling unique Dream, you should be.
box office 0845 120 7500 to 15 Feb