Even the mere mention of Shakespeare conjures notions of romance, tragedy, suave and sophistication. As a nation we are compelled to defend the English lexical genius despite not having a canker-blossoms as to what is going on. And admittedly, the initial excitement I felt when Sheridan Smith came on to the stage as Hippolyta was swiftly overshadowed by the complexity of ‘doth’, ‘thou’, ‘Sirrah’ and ‘forsooth’. Honestly though, there is no need to worry.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream is the penultimate play performed by the Michael Grandage Company as part of a 15-month season at the Noël Coward Theatre. It’s a comedy about four young Athenians in a massive love quadrangle. Helena (Katherine Kingsley) loves Demetrius (Stefano Brasachi), but Demetrius wants to marry Hermia (Susannah Fielding), and Hermia loves Lysander (Sam Swainsbury). Trouble is rife between the fairy King and Queen, Oberon (Pádraic Delaney) and Titania (Sheridan Smith), and after a little mischief from the fairy Puck, the story between the lovers become intertwined. And then there’s Bottom (David Walliams) and his theatrical group who are also accidentally tied in.
As predicted, Walliams steals the show, despite not being one of the focal characters. But that isn’t a bad thing. He is at his finest in the second half, taking the joke over the line and generally being a bit naughty. Bottom is a show off and an attention seeker who insists that he can act out all the characters in the show. Does this remind you of anyone? A Shakespearean Walliams perchance? There is one scene where Walliams is singing alone on stage, clad with ass ears and a tail. I couldn’t help but think it was based on a performance he’d judged during his time on Britain’s Got Talent. I’ve seen a few versions of A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream and Walliams’ Bottom is the best I’ve seen so far.
Grandage’s 60s take on the Shakespearean comedy is so not as naff as it sounds. It’s as far away from Hairspray as it goes. From the smoking, hippie fairies who live in the forest, to the grey suited Theseus and Hippolyta. BAFTA winner Smith is hot. Her performance gives elegant Titania a slightly mad twist, perhaps due to all the smoking, and her husky voice is irresistible. Her role is less ridiculous than Walliams, and her skills as an actor are challenged somewhat by the discomfort of Shakespeare, which caused her to be slightly awkward at times.
Through cuts in the text and a quick pace, the performance lasts around two hours and 20 minutes. To the more hardcore Shakespearean fans out there, this may come as a disappointment, but for the rest of us mere mortals it is just the right amount. Too much prose from a single character in Shakespearean English can rapidly leave the mind wondering and the plot forgotten. But in this version is understandable, naughty and just down right funny.
4/5, only because Shakespeare isn’t everybody’s cup of tea.