If you are a fan of plays that take a traditional story, jazz it up a bit and then deliver you a better experience than you were expecting, then Sir Trevor Nunn’s version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the New Wolsey Theatre does not disappoint.
Directed by Nunn, who was born in Ipswich, the play makes clever use of the static scenery which changes from a drawing room in a colonial house in the British Raj of 1930s India, to the streets of the city outside, and then into the forest outside the city.
This is achieved with the swivelling of the ‘stone’ pillars in the drawing room to reveal ‘trees’ on the other side, complete with leaves and branches, and the voile curtains which are drawn back to reveal a raised platform at the rear of the stage, creating the illusion of distance, with patches of fake grass and foliage to signify a forest floor.
With the yellow lighting in the drawing room suggesting a sunset, the story moves into the forest with its deep blue and purple hues as day turns into night.
The setting of the play has been changed many times over many years but this is the first time it has been set in India during the time of British rule. It works better than you would think. Audience members will notice that the characters of Theseus and Hippolyta (the Duke of Athens and his fiancѐe) are now colonial figures in British India. The ambience is created through the contrasts – the bright colours of Indian fabrics, most notably Titania’s fluorescent orange dress and the neon-rainbow costumes of the children who play the forest fairies, which stand out against the darkness of the forest.
The costuming involved in bringing to life Bottom’s ‘Donkey’ proves to be quite comical, and is sure to make everyone laugh. As an Indian-turned-donkey, Bottom laughs and sways his head around as the titillating Titania, under Oberon’s love spell, awakes and flaunts herself at Bottom.
With the love spell not working how it was supposed to with the two young couples, the comedy is brought to life through a lot of play-fighting which works well.
Nunn’s last Shakespeare play, King John (his 36th Shakespearean play, which appeared at the Rose Theatre in Kingston) was criticised for being too much of an unoriginal, carbon copy, with one review even stating that it seemed like another tick off the checklist of Shakespearean plays which he has directed. Even if that was not as well received as some of his earlier efforts, then Nunn’s 37th Shakespeare play – his version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream – makes up for all those flaws in this delightful interpretation.
The only real disappointment in the play was Helena’s soliloquy, with actress Imogen Daines seemingly straining her voice at times. Soliloquies are an important part of any Shakespearean play but Imogen’s voice was weak at times. There were also a few other errors throughout the play, with a few props dropped, but the actors and actresses did well to incorporate this into the play. However, errors sometimes occur on the first night of the performance, and as any theatre-goer knows, the performance gets better as the show continues its run.
As a final footnote, the mini-play of Pyramus performed in front of Theseus, Hippolyta and the four lovers of Lysander, Hermia, Helena and Demetrius becomes, in its own way, a ‘comedy of errors.’ It also offers an insight into the differing lives of the ‘audience’ and the ‘cast’, and that while things can go wrong, in the end, all’s well that ends well.