“I have had a most rare vision. I have had a dream, past the wit of man to say what dream it was.” William Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night’s Dream
So in a bid to educate the teenager in the works of William Shakespeare ahead of her GCSE Drama exams, I booked us tickets to see ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ at the Noel Coward Theatre, just off Leicester Square in London during our recent trip.
Now I am much more a musical theatre type of girl but the educational benefits outweighed the singing and dancing this time. The real appeal for me of this particular production was that two popular actors from TV, the very funny David Walliams and the amazing Sheridan Smith (saw her previously as the lead in Legally Blonde) were performing as two of the lead characters. Way back in the day when I was doing my O Level Drama and English Literature at school (sounding ancient again), I studied ‘Macbeth’, ‘The Merchant of Venice’ and ‘Twelfth Night’, so it’s fair to say I was unfamiliar with the plot of ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’.
I had purposely tried not to read any reviews of Walliams and Smith ahead of the performance as not to set expectations, but in hindsight I should have probably read the plot! A frantic google search (thank goodness for smartphones) once in our seats, gave us a rough idea of what to expect in this Shakespearian comedy. A Thespian, I certainly am not and to be honest there were lots and lots of words and then more, I know I am a philistine. Smith gave a great performance portraying two very different characters and Walliams translated his stereotypical effeminate humour of ‘Little Britain’ to the part of Bottom (reminded me of Frankie Howerd/Kenneth Williams in the Carry On films). He was camp and hysterical, his facial expressions, delivery and long pauses into the audience had everyone roaring with laughter, especially when he was transformed into the ass.
Shakespeare had a sense of humour, that’s well documented but I hadn’t realised in the texts that I had studied and in the plays I had seen before, how sexual and provocative his writing was, or maybe it was just this modern erotic interpretation! Smith’s portrayal of the Queen of Fairies, Tatiana was seductive and raunchy as the hippy ruler living with her band of fairy followers in the words (think sixties drug charged Woodstock).
So the four parts of the plays within a play as I saw it were (in very basic terms, as best I can): the aristocrats Theseus, the Duke of Athens and his bride-to-be Hippolyta in Athenian court planning their wedding; the mechanicals (tradesmen), that included Bottom the weaver, preparing their play “Pyramus and Thisbe” for the aristocrats; the four young lovers and the fairy kingdom in the woods backlit by a huge moon, of King Oberon and Queen Titania, who were feuding. With its interconnecting plots, lots of concentration was needed and it was slightly confusing in that in the opening scene the characters were formally dressed from a bygone era, then the young lovers were dressed in modern clothes and the Athenian wood scene was a psychedelic sixties orgy, where Oberon and Puck shared a spliff and Simon and Garfunkel played in the background. Smith was a pot-smoking, crazy haired hippy with flowing colourful attire with a lot of exposed flesh. Oberon instructs Puck to administer the juice of a woodland flower to Titania to punish her for her supposed disobedience, this flower had the power, when applied to the recipients eyelids to make them fall in love with the next person they see, what or whoever they are, confused much??
Help with the plot, would have been handy on the day (Source: Marhaba Qatar)
Now a nice and unexpected bonus was the two Abercrombie-esque male models types (casting director obviously had a fine time casting them) who played Athenian’s Lysander and Demitrius who spent most of the play running around in their tight white underpants with six-packs on full show (the teenagers favourite bit, hormones raging and all that). So the four young lovers are one of the sub-plots where court dwellers Lysander loves Hermia but her father Egeus does not approve and wants her to marry Demitrius, who also loves her, her friend Helena, the former fiancée of Demitrius, who still loves him. Cue lots of running around in the woods in carry-on film style in their pants (men only) while in a drug induced state, having been given the potent flower juice whilst sleeping by Oberon’s right-hand man, Puck.
Walliams transformation from Bottom to the allegedly well endowed Ass, whilst drugged was hilarious. I hadn’t realised what a giant of a man he is, towering over everyone in stature and a commanding presence on stage, even in his donkey ears and tail. Drugged and loved by Titania, who was also drugged by Puck and falls in love with this creature as Oberon desired, he awoke her with his singing (cue Smith dragging Walliams off stage for a love fest in her lair) they returned to stage with the audience in no doubt of consummation. The Ass was groped by fairy love (see photo above) until the drugs wore off and Bottom assumed he dreamt of being an Ass ravished in the woods and Titania was in denial of what had occurred.
The funny conclusion saw all the characters back in court enjoying the ill prepared play ‘Pyramus and Thisbe’ that was not supposed to be a comedy, performed by the mechanicals for The Athenians. Smith was back in formal attire in her role as Hippolyta, fiancée of Theseus watching the hilarity of Walliams (in Roman dress) interpretation of Pyramus alongside the four, now clear-headed lovers. Walliams was at his most camp here, playing up to the audience, milking every line. After the play, under the cloak of darkness Oberon, Titania, Puck, and the other fairies entered the court to bless the house and its occupants with good fortune. Puck is left on stage alone and proposed to the audience that what they just experienced might be nothing but a dream, hence the name of the play.
Quentin Letts writing for the Mail Online described Walliams camp portrayal of Bottom as “funny, fresh and rather endearing”, while Smith was “curvaceously slinky and with that very English impishness, could be a modern-day Diana Dors” as she plays the duped fairy queen made to fall in love with a donkey by her jealous fairy husband Oberon.
I did some research and read some of the many reviews of the show and found out that Frankie Howerd actually played Bottom in ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ at the Old Vic in 1957/58 alongside Judi Dench, so maybe Walliams did base his interpretation on him after all. It seems that I am not the only one who though Walliams was challenging his inner carry-on as the reviews are all about the comparisons between and Howerd, ooh matron!
This current production of ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ runs at the Noel Coward Theatre until 16th November as part of a season of five plays. The next production will be Henry V starting on 23rd November until 15th February starring Jude Law….swoon!
This is a sponsored post but the views are all my own. Unless otherwise stated all photos © Jo Brett 2013. All rights reserved