To mark the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, the RSC have undertaken a monumental challenge: touring this 1940s-tinged production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream across the United Kingdom, performing alongside fourteen amateur theatre companies and fifty-eight school groups. The resulting dream is a riotously entertaining night at the Citizen’s Theatre, where a shared passion for theatre is made tangible, yet the current political moment is only briefly examined.
Erica Whyman’s production is fused with an overwhelming sense of joy. Despite a slightly sluggish opening scene, this story of love-struck Athenian nobles and magical fairies is told with an infectious glee. Lucy Ellinson casts this spell as Puck, orchestrating and plotting, before diving-feet first into the audience, clambering over seats and stealing sips from coffee cups. It is a wonderful performance, wide-eyed and full of wonder, that is sure to pique the interest of any audience member.
The decision to relocate the play to 1940s Britain, a post-war society coming together at a time of austerity, rebuilding and the widespread movement of refugees, draws clear parallels to where the nation finds itself now, earning the added subtitle “A Play for the Nation”. The aesthetic is beautiful, but the political comment doesn’t seem to go further than a statement that “we are all in this together”. This note of optimism is of course hugely welcome and valuable; that we are encouraged to dream of better possible futures, of the different nations we could be, is to be applauded. Yet the societal changes required to make these dreams a reality, and the grounds on which these dreams are built – questions of access, equality and privilege – are less critically examined.
It is the moments where the relationship between the current day and Shakespeare’s text are most closely examined that draw the biggest laughs. Mustardseed’s (Ben Goffe) timely intervention on the remarks of a political-incorrect Lysander (Jack Holden) is a much-needed, and well-received, addition to the source. This refreshingly playful attitude to the text ensures the RSC will find a whole new audience of theatre-goers and Shakespeare fans throughout their UK tour.
The night though ultimately belongs to the Rude Mechanicals, played here by the amateur performers of the Citizen’s Dream Players: Martin Turner, David Scanlan, Katy Thomson, Emma Tracy, Alistair Wales and Bill Whiland. There is a palpable excitement every time they appear. Alistair Wales’s Flute grows wonderfully in confidence throughout. At the end of the evening, as the six perform their play-within-a-play, the atmosphere is uproarious and a genuine moment of warmth, joy and silliness is shared. We leave the theatre smiling, which seems a fitting way to celebrate 400 years of Shakespeare.