“A Midsummer Night’s Dream” by William Shakespeare

at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Saturday 6th August 2011

We see Shakespeare’s most famous plays so often that they can fail to give us anything new on each subsequent visit. Every now and then, however, a production comes along which makes us see a play completely afresh. Nancy Meckler’s somewhat psychadelic production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream puts a whole new perspective on this loved comedy, and provides some of the funniest moments of Shakespeare I’ve seen.

Meckler’s concept makes perfect sense; the world of Athens is a patriarchal, tyrannical warehouse, where women are not listened to. As Hippolyta (Pippa Nixon) falls asleep and becomes Titania in her dream world, her desires and worries are played out in front of her; her realisation then leads to the cleansing of the tyranny of Theseus’ (Jo Stone-Fewings) court. The lovers are part of this world, shown by some sensuous and mesmerizing physical theatre.

The four lovers are on fine form. The gentle Nathaniel Martello-White is given a run for his money by Matti Houghton’s fiery Hermia, while Alex Hassell’s powerful Demetrius is matched perfectly with the Lucy Briggs-Owen’s extraordinary and neurotic Helena. Nixon and Stone-Fewings are both calm, considered beings, and should be matched again soon. Arsher Ali’s plain-spoken Puck begins a little shakily, but quickly has the audience in the palm of his hand.

The Rude Mechanicals naturally give us the majority of laughs, presided over by Marc Wootton’s oblivious but remarkably charming Bottom. Michael Grady-Hall’s androgynous Flute and an autistic Snug (Felix Hayes) mean this isn’t your usual set of wannabe-thesps. Their performance of ‘Pyramus and Thisbe’ matches anything in One Man, Two Guvnors.

Katrina Lindsay’s set turns from whitewashed blandness to colourful dream-world with the help of Wolfgang Gobbel’s glorious turquoise and orange lighting. What we are watching is clearly a dream, as pillows and chairs cover the stage and characters never feel quite human. Keith Clouston’s imposing score has a variety of moods, from thunderous drum beats to jovial jigs.

What Nancy Meckler has done with this Dream is to show that’s exactly what it is; a dream. The lack of ‘magic tricks’ actually makes the production far more magical, and the energy never drops. This is in fact a production showing the redemptive power of sleep and the importance of dreams, whatever their form. Now truly settling into their new home, the Royal Shakespeare Company is well and truly back in business.

“The Homecoming” by Harold Pinter

at the Swan Theatre, Saturday 6th August 2011

There are many quick to label Harold Pinter as a big player in the ‘absurdist’ tradition. They argue his speech patterns are disjointed and his characters larger-than-life. David Farr’s delightfully dark new production of The Homecoming at the Swan Theatre launches a gentle riposte to these commentators, showing that although the story depicts an utterly bizarre situation, Pinter’s characters and dialogue could not be more real.

Farr’s production makes it clear what is happening from beginning to end; a masculine household is subjected to a female figure in the beautiful Ruth (Aislin McGuckin), and soon it collapses. There is so much left unsaid in this play and a torrent of questions which are never attempted to be explained. All that matters is what happens on stage. The scene in which Ruth kisses both Joey (Richard Ridell) and Lenny (Jonathan Slinger) is utterly farfetched, but the believability of these characters renders it inevitable.

The cast of six could not be stronger. Slinger’s Lenny hints at effeminacy and it’s easy to see the cogs whirring, while Ridell offers a contrast as the more simple of the two younger brothers. It’s not difficult to see why Teddy moves out and makes a life for himself, as Justin Salinger plays him with a silent superiority. Des McAleer’s Uncle Sam is perhaps the only moral character in the play, and is given a run for his money by Nicholas Woodeson’s small but powerful Max. McGuckin, as the only female character, manages to command full attention without saying a word.

Jon Bausor’s design fits well into the space, merging the theatrical with the domestic, and is supported brilliantly by Jon Clark’s brooding lighting. Although The Homecoming hints towards a bygone era of patriarchy, we’re forced to consider our own views of masculinity. Every man works for himself as the woman is left stranded. But more important than this is the impossibility of true understanding when no one is willing to communicate the truth; it is this that makes this play Pinter’s masterpiece.

“The Cherry Orchard” by Anton Chekhov

in a new version by Andrew Upton

at the Olivier Theatre, Wednesday 3rd August 2011

The Cherry Orchard has always been seen as Chekhov’s most political play. Written during a time of limbo in Russia, when no one knew the shape of the future, it is a play which always feels extraordinarily apt during periods of change. Howard Davies’ imposing production at the National Theatre is perfect for our current climate, presenting on stage the dichotomy between new and old as whole strata of society shift unpredictably.

The indignation of some that Andrew Upton’s new version of the play is ‘too modern’ is mostly unfounded; Scene II of Act One does contain a few too many contemporary colloquialisms, but throughout the rest of the play the slight references to twenty-first century speech only serve to make the play easier to understand. This version focusses on setting apart the three main ‘voices’ Chekhov represents here.

Bunny Christie’s gorgeous whitewashed-wood set evokes a sense of beauty in decay, and the juxtaposition of an old structure with new telegraph poles serves to heighten the sense of estrangement the landed classes felt in Russia in the early 1900s. Neil Austin’s ambitious lighting shows time passing and Dominic Muldowney’s dulcit music reminds us we are never far away from tragedy.

Whenever Zoe Wanamaker is on stage she diverts attention to her, creating the same effect her alter-ego Ranyevskaya has when she walks into a room. Conleth Hill’s boisterous Lopakhin is presented with enough humanity to be empathetic, but when we listen to his words it’s difficult not to see him as the villain. Wanamaker and Hill represent the old and new money at odds with one another, and are given a running commentary by Mark Bonnar’s radical and ebullient Trofimov. These are the three voices, and the ones we are drawn to throughout. Charity Wakefield and Claudie Blakley show impressive range as the two daughters.

Davies manages to pin down the reason why this play can be seen as comic; the humour is found in the tension between the different social views. We find ourselves laughing not because we are told to, but because nervous energy compels us to. Then, in an instant, as the bags are packed and the door slammed, tragedy takes over and we realise the struggle to be heard is ongoing.