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Whistlestop Theatre Company’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream

| Theatre | 16/10/2013

Whistlestop theatre

Just five minutes walk from Old Street station, I stepped off Pitfield St down the steps into the Courtyard Theatre. Down into a mystical underground world I delved, where I would soon encounter fairies and magic. After a drink in the moodily lit bar, and having read some of the book pages used as wall-paper, I took my seat in the auditorium, while ethereal music played.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream is often talked about as Shakespeare’s greatest comedy. It has all the necessary ingredients; love, mistaken identity, magic and the patriarchy inverted. You could say that such an accolade puts pressure on the theatre company performing it, especially a new group like Whistlestop. However, their adaptation of this classic had me at times smiling, regularly chuckling and very often laughing uncontrollably.

The minimalist stage consists of a stack of cardboard boxes. The audience settles down and the play begins. Through a door in the cardboard emerges Puck (Adam Carrie). Dressed in baggy trousers and sporting a string vest, waistcoat and droopy hat, the fairy’s colourful costume is completed by a long tail poking out of the back of his trousers. After capering around on stage for a little while, Puck becomes aware that he is being watched. He gives a nearby member of the audience an inquisitive sniff and promptly sneezes a handful of sparkly confetti into the front row.

Set in Ancient Athens, Courtier Egeus and Duke Theseus arrange for Hermia to marry Demetrius, but she rebels and flees to the forest with her lover Lysander. Hermia’s friend Helena, who is in love with Demetrius, knows of their escape and rushes to tell Demetrius; hoping to win his love through the betrayal.

Meanwhile a group of travelling actors prepare a play to be performed at the wedding of Duke Theseus and the Amazon Queen Hyppolita. Within this group we see two integral extremes of Shakespeare’s comedy genre – the under-acted and the over-acted. While Flute (Rhiannon Story) and Smug (Rebecca Bailey) play dramatic incompetence, all forgotten lines and stumbling deliveries, Bottom (Tom Hurley) is the epitome of melodrama. Hurley’s expressive face and exaggerated gesturing fit the bill perfectly, as he up-stages Smug, Flute and the director Quince (Oliver Callaway).

The play is therefore structured on layers of farce, designed to blur the definitions of character and actor; real and imagined; corporeal and magical.

When the lovers enter the forest everything changes. Oberon, King of the Fairies, sends his servant Puck to apply a love potion to Demetrius’ sleeping eyelids. He intends for Demetrius to love Helena in order to right the balance. When wrathful Oberon finds out that the hapless Puck has administered the love potion to the wrong man, Puck’s dismay is hilarious as he crouches to hide between the rows in the audience, his tail in the air.

The four love interests don’t hold back on the sensuality of their roles. In act one Hermia (Emma Read) and Lysander (Jack Finch) go all out on the groping and snogging, while the sultry Helena (Emma Richardson) crawls on all fours after Demetrius, licking his leg while declaring to be his spaniel. Hermia’s passion turns to rage when the love triangle is magically inverted and the two young courtiers turn their affections on her friend. She bites Helena like a wild animal and has to be restrained from harming her further.

After this confrontation between the two doting courtiers, the wronged Hermia and the confused Helena, who is convinced Demetrius and Lysander are mocking her, it takes another comical intervention from the excellent Adam Carrie (Puck) to set things to rights. One by one, he tracks down the four lovers and puts them to sleep with a handful of fairy dust in the face.

The two standout performances in Whistlestop Theatre Company’s production came from Adam Carrie and Tom Hurley; a credit to the company’s casting as these characters are the lynch-pins of the play. The company really capitalises on the physical humour of a piece whose main characters spend the whole play chasing after and confronting each other, completely unaware of the meddling of the fairies.

As I sit in front the cardboard set, watching the concluding ‘play within a play’, I enjoy both the suspension of disbelief and the visible theatrical devices on display. For the most part the production finds a good balance between the two. However, when Demetrius breaks the Shakespearian dialogue to quip “and why am I covered in glitter?” I felt a little bit cheated. I for one was happy believing that the sparkles in his hair were really magic.

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