A Midsummer Night’s Dream, a play within a play, or in Joe Hill-Gibbins visceral and visual reimagining a dream within a nightmare. This production delves head first into some of the more uncomfortable themes within the text, dark, disturbing and violent. It doesn’t hold back.
The stage (superbly realised by Johannes Schütz) is a muddy-pit, uneven, wet and dirty – not dissimilar from the drug fuelled dance arenas of some of the more unforgiving Glastonbury’s – and the upstage covered with a large mirror that not only makes the play feel like it’s in the round, but acts as a gateway between the parallel universes of the real and the dream. The cast trawl and trudge their way through the mud, often ending up face down in it and literally being stained by it – the trials of their journeys physically leaving their mark. It is truly breathtaking. And if the set was muddied the characters are too, Oberon (menacingly brought to life by Michael Gould), shirtless, physically and mentally abuses Titania in a way that only Thesus could dream about doing to his Hippolyta – Puck, so often played sprightly and impish, is here a lout, sluggish and lazy. In fact is Lloyd Hutchinson’s Puck which first eludes to the real danger that lies beneath this production, he is violent, angry and without remorse, with his string vest and red hair (think lovechild of Sharon Osbourne and Rab-C-Nesbitt) it’s hard to imagine him without a can of special brew breaking fingers for fun.
The lovers too are tainted. It’s so often the most tiresome part of Dream, watching the lovers fawn, and faint and ‘love’ – here they are the lynchpin of the production. They are doomed from the beginning, Demetrius (Oliver Alvin-Wilson) smug, jock, and certainly with no agenda of love, Lysander is no saint either, John Dalgleish’s version is a cocky sexual deviant who probably deserves a little bit of the rough treatment, it’s hard to see what either Helena or Hermia see in them, and sadly what the future will bring with a marriage with either of them? Bleak. Lysander seems to evoke most of Puck’s rage, he is treated with much more distain, much more physical violence, one can’t help but wonder if Pucks inner-Egeus (also portrayed by Hutchinson) is taking some time to make sure the boy suffers.
The danger even draws into the mechanicals (quite significantly cut in what is now a 2-hour production with no interval) with real focus given to the fact they may lose their heads if they get their little play wrong. There is still humour here though, Leo Bill’s ‘Show Me Heaven’ singing Bottom, is a joy to watch, and the production of Pyramus and Thisbe is equally excellent. It is during this production that slowly the cast of Athens descends back into their forest dwelling inhabitants and the already blurred lines blur further as the mirror ‘gateway’ between that of the dream realm and that of the real world is shut. “Are you sure that we are awake?” It is Demetrius line, but oh so pertinent for so many.
There are plenty genuine queries here about love, there is certainly a reminder of the deviance of fairies - this is much more Grimm than Barrie – and it takes a good amount of attention to fully appreciate all the questions Hill-Gibbins is asking. There are questionable morals towards how the sexes are treated within this play, as right from the off, be it human or fairy, the women are abused, beat and victim and the men brutish, aggressive and violent. But this is certainly not like any Dream I have ever seen but is certainly one I’ll be having for some time to come.