Such Stuff As Dreams Were Made On? – Associate Director Nick Bagnall’s vision of the Athenian Court versus woodland magic proves to be a sinister and enchanting realisation in one of the latest offerings from the Liverpool Everyman.
From the start of Bagnall’s contemporary, innovative interpretation of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”, it is clear the audience will see a world of mischief and wonder appear before their eyes in a production which places firm emphasis on the darker aspects of the text.
Cynthia Erivo’s trapeze artist Puck appears from above clad as Master of Ceremonies to introduce us to proceedings and cast her sparkling wand-slim cane to display a predominantly bare stage backed by a graffiti scrawled blackboard. Soon enough, the stage widens to transform from Athenian public school and grey uniforms to paperwork forest – its floor littered with discarded leaves constructed from the abandoned homework or note passing musings of the student lovers, played by Emma Curtis and Charlotte Hope (making their stage debuts) and recent graduates Tom Varey and Matt Whitchurch.
Cleverly, the woodland floor is backed by a circus-like hall of mirrors, creating the illusion of an extended dream forest cast back into the audience’ eye and literal reflection in a play rife with imagery concerning appearance and reality. The trickery continues as, later, the woodland fairies appear unannounced from beneath the papers – once again playing with our perceptions.
Transformation, too, is key to the inspired use of the paper littered stage, as the scrunched leaves become bedding and blankets surrounding the characters as they slumber – the rustling, crunching noise as they shift whilst being reassembled adding an auditory aspect to the suggestion of the natural world we, as audience, inhabit.
The presentation of Hermia and Lysander and Helena and Demetrius as gym slip lovers is an interesting one, given it provides an alternative, more modern, explanation for the irrational infatuation induced by the love potions and sense of emotion (at the hands of the darkly mischievous Puck) wielding control over the teenagers, who are literally and figuratively helpless whilst its spell remains cast over them. Careless crushes rule – proving fleeting and easily discarded once the initial intense flood of hormones fades. Meanwhile, “Midsummer Madness” abounds – complete with hissy hits and rivalry between the partner switching couples. Happily, the energy needed to convey the jealous conflict amidst the mischievous misunderstandings proves easy to conjure for the young actors.
Contrary to some interpretations of Robin Goodfellow, there is little of the jester about Erivo’s dark and predominantly black-clad Puck, who makes solemn sport of the task of tormenting the teenagers. Here, too, the pervading use of black and white costuming (Puck in black, the beleaguered – and innocent - teenagers in lighter whites and greys) adds to the overarching sense of the dream world into which we have been conducted courtesy of Puck’s cane at the outset. Into this are added the sinister midnight hooded woodland fairies – sprites without discernible faces, reminiscent both of masked (and threatening) intruders and suggestive of the lack of visual clarity and confusion capable of being created mid-sleep. Clearly, the couples are caught in the throws of a nightmare from which they can be released only once it has run its course. Thus, the pervading sense of menace increases.
Whilst Dean Nolan makes the most of comic opportunity in his booming Blessed Bottom, who proves energetic enough to perform an almost perfect (and definitely impressive) on stage splits, his character, too, is subject to nightmarish transformation, donning a spectral, equine skull visually reminiscent of the legendary midwinter Grey Mare – a genuinely shocking sight as he rises from the paper piles he has previously been hidden by.
By the time the characters spin in circles at the conclusion of the play, their frenzied dancing parodying the off-kilter surfacing from dream to reality, we, too, welcome the return to the world of the concrete from that of dark dream and illusion. However, even post conclusion, we are left with the overwhelming sense that, though the couples may have escaped their woodland nightmares, there cannot be a happy ending for all. Here, Curtis’ sulky Helena’s refusal to walk with Demetrius infers that any illusions she may have had concerning her now partner have been removed in her eyes, leaving disenchantment in their wake. Whilst a departure from general interpretations at the denouement, this adds a suitably shadowy note to the concluding Act – suggesting that sometimes what we want is not necessarily best long-term, if we but knew it. A suitably adult lesson learnt by the young girl, perhaps. Thus, we leave slightly unsettled in the wake of our interlude in the company of the cast – a final trick to leave us wondering about reality and its permutations as we depart.
I was lucky enough to watch Liverpool Everyman's "A Midsummer Night's Dream" a while back and, since it had been a while since a review article had featured here, I thought I would share the result.