A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a play about lovers and fairies. We get swept up in its romance, its magic, and the madcap subplot in which Bottom is transformed into a donkey and seduced by the Queen of the Fairies before being returned to his troupe of amateur actors to perform at the finale’s marriage party. By its giddy happy ending, the fact that the play opens rather more ominously, with Duke Theseus threateningly reminding his wife-to-be Hippolyta “I woo’d thee with my sword, And won thy love, doing thee injuries”, is often easily forgotten. But not in this production, presented by Russia’s Teatr Bałtycki and set in a terrifying military state. Romanian director Silvíu Pucărete refuses to let us forget the play’s darker side, adding a thrilling edge to an otherwise rather conventional Dream.
Hippolyta enters manhandled by armed guards and lets out a chilling scream, a shocking opening which sets the tone for a dark reading of Shakespeare’s play. As the young lovers flee the city, Demetrius threatens Helena with a rifle, and the mechanicals’ forest meeting feels genuinely subversive. The fairy world is a welcome relief from the tension of the first few scenes but even this has a darker look and feel than most versions. Titania’s attendants, for example, are a moth-eaten bunch dressed in faded tutus and ripped tights with panda-eye make-up and dust and glitter falling from their scruffy blonde wigs.
Of course there is still plenty of fun to be had. Puck (here called Robin Goodfellow) is as energetic a mischief-maker as ever, and while the lovers’ tiffs have a violent sexual charge, Lysander and Demetrius’ pursuit of Helena is still played for laughs. The funniest scenes of the night star Oberon, who struts about like a panto villain in a cape that flicks up like a peacock’s tail feathers. But none of this, nor the beautiful giant chandeliers that decorate the stage, can distract from the play’s troubling political elements. The ending is as tense as the opening, with everyone waiting on tenterhooks for Theseus’ approval, and proceedings quickly descend into panic when the lion roars a little too loud and shots are fired. For a moment, it feels like the wedding celebrations could turn to tragedy – this Dream has a few surprising twists and turns despite staying true to Shakespeare’s play. Pucărete’s Dream is a visually impressive and surprisingly insightful interpretation of the play. Beautifully handled by the Teatr Bałtycki Dom, it offers as much surface to enjoy as depth to ponder.