GUEST CRITIC LUKE JONES GROPES FOR DIAMONDS IN THE MUD
Timothy Spall tells a good story – bear with me – about performing a Midsummer Night’s Dream at the National. Just like this Joe Hill-Gibbins production at the Young Vic, it was caked in mud; a great big sloppy heap of it that the cast had to wade through for every scene.
The story goes that Timothy Spall found a great big shit in it. Human. Don’t ask how he distinguished it from the mud. Smell, probably. But it’s fair to say it must have thrown him. I bring this up because in this 2017 production I too found nothing but distraction in the mud.
(I’ll leave you to make the pile of crap gag)
I fear Hill-Gibbins is bored by text. His usual sweetener is random live video. Thankfully he’s shaken that habit. But the stark, sludgey set the cast have to hobble through, the crowded staging (no one ever leaves), the interruptions of pointless movement and bad song make it hard to see the play for the direction.
The story of confused love in the forest is confused further.
Michael Gould and Anastasia Hille’s Oberon/Theseus and Titania/Hippolyta, the tent-poles of the play, are limp. Their lines are delivered with such GCSE incomprehension, it makes the plot near-impossible to find.
The four toyed-with lovers land occasionally good comedic moments (thanks to Jemima Rooper’s Hermia and Anna Madeley’s Helena), especially in the 4-way fights. But the romance, the raw attraction and sex drive? Lost in the sludge. Any textual drama is skimmed through. Any additional gesture, flourish or diversion is indulged in. A particularly tuneful Fairy is bad for this.
But the saving grace of this 2 hour (no interval) poo party are the Mechanicals, and Leo Bill’s glorious Bottom. The sometimes wooden Shakespearean playfulness is fully whipped off the page in their performance , and brought to life with real comedic flair. The frantic Am-Dram of Pyramus and Thisbe, complete with a topless obese man-lion, was bang on the money. They all fully round out their lightly sketched roles, get big laughs and reach that blissful moment when Shakespearean dialogue turns from being the kind of thing at which your 15 year-old self glazed over, into something incredibly clear, rich and present.
But brief sketches won’t save this production. Solidly comedic moments are adrift in a brown sea of almost unintelligible drama. When you find yourself inspecting the filthy state of the mirror or wincing at the muddying of white trousers, it’s clear the play is not gripping you.
Compare the (mostly) slack recitation of lines here to the ferociously intelligent Twelfth Night up the road at the National and you’ll see how high the bar is, if you want to pull off genuinely entertaining, dramatic and moving Shakespeare. Muddying the waters with panto flourishes does nothing to hide basic failures in storytelling.
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