Any production of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream lives and dies by its rude Mechanicals and their farcical amateur production of ‘Pyramus and Thisbe’ at the end of the play. In Erica Whyman’s version, ambitiously subtitled ‘A Play for the Nation’, real, local am-dram companies have stepped up to play Bottom et al throughout the UK tour. Potentially patronising and definitely risky, the decision pays off hugely as actors from east London’s Tower Theatre Company give the RSC a run for their money. Led by John Chapman’s brilliant Bottom – weaver by day, passionate, stage-hogging diva by night – their play within the play utterly steals the show. It’s so good, in fact, that the pacing issues and occasional dull moments of the first half are totally forgotten in the uproarious laughter and well-deserved applause that greets the second.
Tom Piper’s design sets this Dream in a bombed-out 1940s theatre with a simple make-do-and-mend aesthetic of exposed brickwork and strings of fairy lights where the lovers tiff in suits and pretty floral tea-dresses. Meanwhile, over in timeless fairyland, Ayesha Dharker’s Titania wears a sari, her Oberon (Chu Omambala) sports a white suit, and uniformed schoolchildren (also plucked from the local area) run around escorted by fairies in torn eveningwear. There’s a lot going on, but this higgledy-piggledyness is part of the production’s strange charm. Against the madness Siân William’s movement direction catches the eye, while Lucy Ellinson’s Puck, a tiny androgynous artful dodger in a ringmaster’s top hat, stage-manages the chaos with a wink.
Though far from perfect this Dream is much more than a good ‘RSC Dream’. It is truly a ‘Play for the Nation’, and not just because it shares the stage with a local company and London school kids. With strong women (including Laura Harding’s no-nonsense Hippolyta and Mercy Ojelade’s feisty Hermia) and a genuinely diverse cast, the production speaks to modern Britain in ways that the RSC rarely does. For this, Erica Whyman and all who turned this Dream into reality deserve a round of applause as big as Bottom’s.