Comedy star Phill Jupitus is the big-name draw for this production, and he tackles the role of Bottom with appropriate gusto. The rest of the mechanicals rally around him – the group of would-be actors displaying a kind of enthusiastic chaos that feels entirely natural. Of particular note are the delightfully nervy Flute (Oscar Batterham), and Quince (Forbes Masson), constantly an astonishing lobster-red, every inch the frustrated auteur. However, Jupitus’ excellent comic timing and intuitive understanding of audience reaction are at their best when he is alone onstage. It is then that he is allowed to go slow, to revel in the pauses that provoke laughter, to delve into the text, rather than just charge straight through it.
The frustrating insistence on stretching scenes out to their broadest comic potential characterises much of the production. Individual motifs and moments – such as the macho, acrobatic ‘wall’ in Pyramus and Thisbe – are funny, but ultimately over-egged: there is no sense of restraint, and that can lead to scenes feeling somewhat baggy. This is particularly the case in the fairy scenes: armed with a capable chorus, they should have been one of the strongest elements of the show, but Simon Gregor’s goggle-eyed Puck disrupts almost every scene in which he appears. There is an over-dramatic flair to his movements, reminiscent of someone who has just taken his first ever interpretive dance class, and his delivery verges on screechy, an almost grotesque depiction that does not mesh with the rest of the production.
This tonal disjunction is not a one-off: the play starts eerily, with humming actors dressed in muted shades – and then seems determined to play much of the genuine emotional distress for laughs. The problematics of Renaissance comedy do demand a little of this, but the beginning of the production seems to lurch between emotional extremes (Hermia’s trembling, awful fear, and the hilarious drama-queen antics of Helena) with no regard to the discrepancy between them. In the face of this, Katy Stephens (Hippolyta/Titania) brings a welcome weight and gravitas to the text. She is initially near-static as Hippolyta, her tension and apprehension clear, and is roiling with turmoil and distress in Titania’s confrontation with Oberon.
Helena and Hermia’s initial friendship is genuinely lovely, clasping at each other even as they stumble over their tangled love lives, and Maya Wasowicz makes the most of her stand-up comedy opportunities, her delivery playful and laced with disdain. Eve Ponsonby spits fire as Hermia, dashing around onstage like a wild thing. Although the male lovers are initially a little dull, things perk up once they are under the spell, raunchy and ridiculous, and they excel in the elongated slapstick fight. The slapstick is a real highlight of the production: there’s a certain purity of joy in watching the men be tossed improbably easily around the stage.
There are elements here that work, and the audience, at least on this night, was kept laughing throughout. However, it has been a summer full of Midsummers, and this production would have to do something much more extraordinary to be the pick of the bunch.