A Midsummer Night’s Dream
OVO at the Roman Theatre of Verulamium
Reviewed – 26th May 2022
“It isn’t strictly Shakespeare but it’s a fine evening’s entertainment”
The English summer outdoor theatrical season is amongst us and there can be few sites more delightful for enjoying an evening’s entertainment than the Roman Theatre of Verulamium (St Albans). The stage is beautifully lit (Mattis Larsen) in reds and blues as the evening draws in, and head mics are worn by all performers (sound by Michael Bird) that removes the necessary but sometimes irritating shoutiness of outdoor projection. A Midsummer Night’s Dream is, for obvious reasons, a summer favourite and there is a huge amount of fun to be had in this production directed by Adam Nichols and Matt Strachan – including an opportunity for a legitimate stage invasion – but this is not one for a Shakespeare purist. With a large percentage of the original dialogue paraphrased into modern(-ish) language, and much of the plot condensed and developed, it is surprising that there is no ‘adapted by’ credit which is surely merited.
The action is initially set within the confines of a Blackburn working man’s club of the 1970s, with references to closing mills and striking miners, and with the locals sporting dodgy facial hair and Lancashire accents to reinforce the period feel. The style of the production is set as Lysander serenades Hermia with some verses of the Bay City Rollers’ hit Bye, Bye Baby and the audience is encouraged to join in. The dialogue, mixing the Shakespearean with the vernacular, goes along the lines of, “Stand forth Demetrius, cum ‘ere lad”.
A gender-ambiguous Puck (Guido Garcia Lueches) is barely dressed in a low-cut singlet, the shortest of shorts and the highest of platform boots (Costumes Emma Lyth) – half Eurovision, half Eurotrash. Leaving the club singing Abba’s Gimme Gimme Gimme (A Man after Midnight), Puck draws the locals into an imaginary Disco Land where the fairy magic is to take place. Verses of pop song are interspersed with spoken Shakespearean text whilst the would-be young lovers show us their moves (Choreography Sundeep Saini).
Lyle Fulton plays a rather pathetic but ultimately endearing Lysander who with a guitar in hand and a song for every occasion wins us over by his appealing nature. Emilia Harrild is a feisty Hermia – little but fierce – who endures the worst insult when described as a “Yorkshire teabag”. Charlie Clee plays Demetrius inexplicably as a sullen and rather unattractive suitor; an approach which is explained by a striking late plot twist. Eloise Westwood as the naive Helena provides the performance of the evening. Even before her moving last solo song, her star quality shines out amidst the pantomime going on around her.
In the traditional manner, the roles of Theseus (Ben Whitehead) and Hippolyta (Emma Wright) are doubled with those of Oberon and Titania. Emma Wright shows her stage versatility with an impressive transformation from down-trodden housewife to spectacular dancing queen. I can’t relax into Oberon’s “luurrv” style of delivery but many around me enjoy his fairy meddling, “Get ready to party, and don’t Puck it up”.
In the most radical change of the production, the hempen homespun have ambitions to become a pop band rather than to stage a play, so Pyramus and Thisbe does not get an airing. They are transformed into disco fairies and Bottom (Daniel Hall) becomes a Saturday Night Fever dance icon (white suit, gold medallion, black quiff) rather than the traditional ass.
In the final scene, back in the club, the band The Mechanicals perform a non-stop 70s megamix medley (Musical Director Tom Cagnoni) and the full cast dance out the night. It isn’t strictly Shakespeare but it’s a fine evening’s entertainment in the open air.
Reviewed by Phillip Money
Photography by Elliott Franks
A Midsummer Night’s Dream
OVO at the Roman Theatre of Verulamium until 11th June
Previously reviewed at this venue: