To my everlasting chagrin, I never saw Peter Brook’s famous 1970 production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream set in a white box with trapezes. It was ground-breaking at the time and, as everyone is a thief in theatre, the moment someone does something new we all nick it. I’ve noticed this recently with productions designed inside a set with a roof.
Brook said the aim was ‘to appeal to the imagination through a lively humorous contact between stage and audience’. This seems a perfect description of Filter’s intentions in the show at Manchester’s HOME. It is certainly lively and humorous, and engages the audience directly, and if you know the play it has some especially clever moments.
It’s an outdoor show on a piece of ground five minutes’ walk from the theatre. The venue has the feel of an open-air rock concert, with a large stage and socially distanced blocks of seats spread across the site. In the area next door there are street food franchises and a bar, and you can order from your seat with your phone using the Q code on your table. Nimble sprites deliver your every wish, as long as it’s on the menu. After a year gazing at my fridge, that in itself is quite exciting.
The opening ten minutes is delivered by Ed Gaughan who does a fine piece of stand-up and then introduces a piece of business – no spoilers here – which I thought incredibly risky in that it courts disappointment, and in the end seemed a bit long and pointless. However, the conceit transforms itself into a particularly good interpretation of the rude mechanicals, with Gaughan as a fine, electric guitar-playing Peter Quince – did I say it has musical numbers? – Chris Branch (the musical director and keyboards) as Thysbe, and the drummer Alan Pagan giving his lion impression. He’s the drummer, what more do you want? Bottom is, of course, the singer.
The play proper begins with Theseus’s announcement of his coming nuptials, and then the lovers’ argument kicks off. There’s a lot of exposition and you need to focus, which is not easy when you’re fifty yards from the stage. Everyone is wearing radio mics, and standing quite a long way apart, which might explain why a couple of the cast seemed to be shouting despite the microphones, which doesn’t help the language. Lysander, an extremely good David Judge, whom I last saw giving a terrific plumber in The Kitchen Sink at Oldham Coliseum, seemed to have the measure of the acting style required. He didn’t shout, and had developed a gestural language that reinforced his meaning; a language which, by the end of the play, the others seemed to be using too.
Harry Jardine gives a pompous Theseus and doubles Oberon as a hilariously incompetent superhero dressed as a smurf. Hippolyta, a stern Carla Henry, makes for a raunchy Titania. Demetrius, a fine Karl Queensborough, does a decent Michael Jackson, which may be how he got the part of Hamilton in the West End. Meanwhile, Leah Walker plays a shortish Hermia and Misha Duncan-Barry gives a slightly taller Helena,and they both just got better and better. Puck, normally a mischievous fairy, is played here by Ferdy Roberts as a bolshie stage hand, and he nearly steals the show. The action is assisted by a sound design which helps with the magic and the settings. It also indicates Bottom’s transformation, but I’m not sure you’d get that if you didn’t know the play.
I’m required by my editor to give shows a star rating, and I feel a bit mean giving this three. Everyone is working really hard and some of it, particularly the fight in the forest, is very good indeed. It currently runs at one hr 45 mins. I reckon they could snip 15 minutes and then it would rip along and be worth at least four stars. I took a friend who’s an accomplished actor and whose last big job was a lead in the West End, and she concurred. We also agreed there was some rather good stuff in it that we were going to nick.
Images by Drew Forsyth
A Midsummer Night’s Dream is at HOME until June 26, 2021. For more information, click here.