If anyone could pull off a Shakespearean comedy infested with puppets then, surely, it would be the Handspring Puppet Company, the talented team behind War Horse. But their rendition of A Midsummer Night’s Dream with Bristol Old Vic, reprised for a short run at the Barbican this week, just doesn’t hit the mark.
The characterisation is problematic from the beginning. While there is early promise from Saskia Portway’s modern, artistic-type Hippolyta, this quickly disappears as the cast slide lazily into stock portrayals of the well-known characters. The scenes before the puppets and the fairy world arrive onstage are forgettable.
Yet the astounding puppetry works wonders on the audience, distracting them almost entirely from the mediocre performances. The puppets range from the elegant (the Grecian masks of Titania and Oberon), through the silly (Puck, a very effective puppy-like creation made from a basket and a few workshop tools), to the downright disturbing (Titania’s servant Cobweb, a cherub puppet who can become a devil in the blink of an eye). This pomp and ceremony is inventive, fun and nice to look at and really comes into its own in the second half which whizzes by just as deliriously as A Midsummer Night’s Dream should. Sadly, though, it’s all just a trick of the eye: the magic of the puppets is smoke and mirrors to hide the significant absence of the magic of Shakespeare’s language.
There is a heavy reliance on the physical comedy of the play which the company does very well. While the dialogue-heavy scenes are unremarkable, the Mechanicals’ scenes are done spectacularly with good performances from Christopher Keegan, Fionn Gill and Saikat Ahamed. The majority of the laughs are rightly reserved for Miltos Yerolemou’s Bottom. For his donkey transformation he is upturned on a wheeled contraption, bottom exposed to all, with his legs in the air as the ass’ ears. This brings a wickedly funny new angle to Titania’s adoring lines “Come sit thee down upon this flowery bed / While I thy amiable cheeks do coy” though the joke feels stretched by the second, pitiable appearance of the ass on wheels. Once Yerolemou is allowed to climb down and put his trousers back on he goes on to win just as many laughs in the finale with his hammed-up turn as Pyramus. The lovers are disappointing for the majority of the play but Naomi Cranston does a good job as a gangly and dejected Helena and Alex Felton and Akiya Henry steal a whole act with their brilliant performance of Lysander and Hermia’s lovers’ tiff.
Visually, the play is spectacular but Tom Morris’ decision to put the aesthetics over the acting proves to be his downfall. While the audience roar with laughter at the particularly vulgar portrayal of Bottom and wonder at the towering giant puppets, they are cheated of the linguistic beauty of the play.
Bristol Old Vic’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream does not do justice to Shakespeare’s text but it is daring and, thanks to Handspring, looks amazing. It will certainly divide audiences but this Marmite Midsummer is not to my taste.