This review was originally written for West End Frame
Filter’s unique approach to producing Shakespeare can be decidedly hit and miss. Their combination of experimental live music, free adaptation of text and dynamic staging was alienating in their 2014 production of Macbeth. Here, they are on much firmer ground – although not quite literally – with this raucous, unsubtle and unapologetically silly A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which first ran back at the Lyric in 2012 and has been revived this year, the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death.
Where to begin? Sean Holmes and Stef O’Driscoll co-direct but the madcap variety is born of many minds, not just two. Quince (Ed Gaughan) introduces the play like a compère warming up the crowd in a hundred-mile-an-hour Irish brogue. The possibility of Ian McKellen assuming the role of Bottom is aired to mass whispering amongst the audience, but when he is unfortunately trapped in a lift backstage, a surprisingly mouthy audience member (Andrew Buckley) is hauled on stage instead, shopping bags, broad Northern accent and all.
Jonathan Broadbent channels something of Austin Powers in his chichi Oberon and a gothic-looking Cat Simmons something of the night in her Titania. Ferdy Roberts’ Puck is a Fosters-swigging, crisp-crunching stagehand intent on ruining the show. It’s all very meta – A Midsummer Night’s Dream Goes Wrong almost – but it is best to sit back and enjoy the mayhem unfolding, rather than to probe too deep beneath its skin.
The four lovers are the only characters played remotely conventionally, but they too have enormous fun, Puck’s love-potions turning them into dopey, sex-crazed zombies. John Lightbody’s transformation from Lysander the upright wooer of Hermia (Victoria Moseley) into Lysander the grinding lothario resolute on screwing Helena is particularly hilarious. The entire cast are unafraid of ad-libbing and improvising, and audience participation is encouraged – if you can call having mini donuts hurled at you encouragement.
As usual with Filter, the show is crammed full of invention, with the strings intentionally left unconcealed: Hyemi Shin’s blank white set is literally ripped apart by Roberts’ Puck, who repeatedly bursts through its paper walls; Titania’s fairy attendants are conjured up by noise effects alone; and Chris Branch and Tom Haines’ sound design is ever-present and always surprising. Whereas in Macbeth, this experimentation dehumanised the drama, here it is artfully used to heighten the comedy, it is the magic that threads the show together.
Perhaps it is because A Midsummer Night’s Dream is the most popular and performed of Shakespeare’s comedies – and also his funniest if you ask me – that audiences seem to be more patient with reinterpretations of it. Or perhaps it is because the fundamentals of the play – confused lovers, fighting fairies and hapless actors – are so strong and so well-structured that they will entertain in any medium. In any case, Filter’s production of this cherished play – although bristling with ideas and restlessly inventive throughout – is always a crowd-pleaser.