A Midsummer Night’s Dream
Arundel and Ladbroke Gardens
Reviewed – 25th June 2019
“this setting could have been made for A Midsummer Night’s Dream, with Tatty Hennessy born to direct”
Stepping into a normally locked, private garden a few long days after the Summer Solstice is the perfect entry to Shakespeare’s fantastic interplay of human passions and fairy spells. Arundel and Ladbroke Gardens supplies a cluster of trees and shrubs, to be adorned with bunting and soft lighting and it’s not long before this Shakespeare in the Squares production transports you sufficiently to block out the Notting Hill noise beyond the hedge.
This is Tatty Hennessy’s third production with the company, her last being a 1970s Music Festival setting for As you Like It, an interpretation that played better than most because it followed the cultural, fashion and musical spirit of the work rather than indulging a historical theory. Indeed, the idea of a 1920s Midsummer Night’s Dream initially suggests some convoluted connection being made, between two eras of post-war fallout. Thankfully, it is again the decade’s cultural resonances that are reflected, with costume (Emma Lindsey) and music (Richard Baker) bringing out the play’s themes of attraction, love, magic and bacchanalia with effortless aptness. The aesthetics of burlesque and 1920s Music Hall are a fine fit for the lusts and jealousies of Hermia, Lysander, Demetrius and Helena, just as suited to the Mechanicals’ ham-fisted style of entertainment and afford the fairy characters a louche, decadent manner whether carelessly casting spells or settling back with popcorn to enjoy the emotional carnage they’ve caused.
The casting for this troupe of players, most of whom must double up as musicians and singers as well as other characters, is a triumph of talent logistics. Paul Giddings trisects Theseus, Oberon and Quince, bringing a quizzical authority that plays differently but superbly to each. Gemma Barnett’s combination of delicacy and bravery works as well to fair Hermia as to the Fairy as to Snug’s hilariously pathetic lion. Yet the versatility comes with no loss of individual stamp as Hannah Sinclair Robinson elevates Helena to a point where she competes for notional title of Comedy Lead with James Tobin’s left eyebrow, which cocks winningly as it brings some drag queen insouciance to Puck.
Ensemble playing is hearty and energetic with the cast’s movement (Yarit Dor) reaching into and around the audience, enhanced by the cast’s ad libs and some witty design details (Emily Stuart with Eleanor Tipler). If sometimes laughs are pursued too ardently it’s an understandable side-effect of the show’s mission to help even a child in the back row enjoy Shakespeare.
Finding new ways to access Shakespeare never grows old and, aside from the Portaloos and sirens, this setting could have been made for A Midsummer Night’s Dream, with Tatty Hennessy born to direct.
Reviewed by Dominic Gettins
Photography by James Miller
A Midsummer Night’s Dream
Various London Squares and Gardens until 11th July
Last ten shows covered by this reviewer:
Pictures of Dorian Gray – D
Jermyn Street Theatre
Reviewed – 12th June 2019
“this Dorian-meets-Dracula interpretation has left the story drained of its lifeblood”
Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray – about the beautiful young man whose portrait grows old and marred over the years, while he remains a picture of innocent youth – is famous enough to be familiar even if you haven’t read it. The novel doesn’t lend itself well to the stage, and it’s an ambitious choice for an adaptation. Unfortunately, Tom Littler and Lucy Shaw’s one-note show doesn’t capture the complexity of Wilde’s writing.
Directed by Littler and adapted by Shaw, Pictures of Dorian Gray is titled in the plural to reflect its twist: the cast rotates through four different performances (‘Pictures’), gender swapping Dorian (Stanton Wright or Helen Reuben), Wotton (Richard Keightley or Augustina Seymour), Basil (Rueben or Wright), and Sibyl Vane (Seymour or Keightley).
The performances are strong all around – Reuben (Picture D) stands out for her portrayal of Dorian’s gradually souring innocence. However, the characters, and the intrigue around their gender-swapped dynamics, are drowned by Littler and Shaw’s heavily stylised presentation, which focuses solely on the darkness in Wilde’s story at the expense of all other elements. The aesthetic is gothic horror. The set is a sparse, black room with stark hanging lights and gothic mirrors (William Reynolds). The costumes are Victorian-influenced black robes (Emily Stuart). Disappointingly, this Dorian-meets-Dracula interpretation has left the story drained of its lifeblood. I found myself regularly reaching back to the novel for its colour and humour to contrast the hollow, unvarying bleakness of the production.
The characters who aren’t in scene slowly pace the edges of the stage, interspersing the dialogue with monotone prose from the novel, or blankly chanting scrambled, dissociated quotes. The constant repetition of echoing words – “Books. Mirror. Realism. Art. Art. Art.” – is grating and meaningless. The effect is a joyless, alienating tone. A few half-hearted chuckles from a handful of audience members survive the cleansing, but mostly the production dispenses with what is entertaining and engaging in favour of being confrontationally cold. Wilde would be the last person to take himself as seriously as this show wants to.
There’s plenty of darkness in Wilde’s works, but it’s insidious. In his plays, he slips his criticism into the comedy like razors. In The Picture of Dorian Gray, it takes a while to realise it’s a horror story. His writing lures you in with its warmth and humour, pretty dresses and lovely gardens. He’s still making light, witty jokes in the final chapters. Wilde is never straightforward. He’s very funny when he’s serious, and sincerity is his way of being playful. Littler and Shaw have missed this entirely.
In its attempt to stuff the story into a simplistic, one-note horror box, Pictures of Dorian Gray has stripped away the humour, the subtlety, the contradictions, all of Wilde’s colours, and left only black. It’s necessary to remember the original Dorian Gray is hugely enjoyable, even if Littler and Shaw want to argue it isn’t.
Reviewed by Addison Waite
Photography by S R Taylor
Pictures of Dorian Gray – D
Jermyn Street Theatre until 6th July
The cast switch roles at different performances, giving you a choice of four versions: A – Male Dorian with male Wotton, B – Male Dorian with female Wotton, C – Female Dorian with male Wotton and D – Female Dorian with female Wotton. See Jermyn Street Theatre website for dates each version is performed.
Last ten shows reviewed at this venue: