Maybe my immaturity regarding Midsummer Night’s Dream stems from when I first encountered it: aged eleven in my first taught encounter with Shakespeare. It is the play’s supposed accessibility that makes it a hot choice on school curriculums. But there is nothing childish about the performance from the Newnham Anonymous Players in the glorious surroundings of Newnham College. Arguably, it’s not altogether accessible either.
Pitched as an ‘experience’, the audience should expect a challenging interpretation of this classic. Trippy is a better description. Maids in dress and courteous diction invite guests to a quiet room down a wood-panelled corridor, in which the Duchess nervously awaits her Duke. Outside, ‘wedding guests’ are visible, chatting and jibing through the arched glass doors.
Everything is so set to be perfect. But the evidently clever crafting lacks credibility. The play’s billing promises that Shakespearean theatre will meet the rip-roaring twenties. After a slightly awkward crocodile file through the college grounds to the ‘Woods’, the jazz den we were promised is little more than a third filled by the audience with a thin and lacklustre laptop playing jazz.
This performance is, sadly, a case of style over substance. Sure, the ‘Love in Idleness’ cocktails we are offered by flapper girls are delectable, but it doesn’t really feel like a sleaze evening. There was just not enough of the decadence of ‘The Great Gatsby’ and the enormous care over atmospheric lighting, costuming and make-up left the performance of some of the cast a little flat.
Ruby Zajac makes for a stunning post-war pin-up, but the highlight of her performance as Titania (doubling as the Duchess), is a husky song to a sexy blues tune. Her mischievous fairies steal her limelight, although their typically magical dance lacked energy with a Charleston that was too long to hold our attention. The play-within-a-play comes as a welcome relief. As Quince, Katie Akers commands the stage and allows the true genius of this rendition, Bottom (David Tremain), to dazzle with his buffoonish nature.
Equally compelling is the four-way love hate relationship between Lysander, Hermia, Helena and Demetrius. Alys Williams’s screechy, indignant characterisation of Helena is remarkably compatible when balanced with the quietly confident performance from Jackson Caines (Lysander).
The final act finds us out on the lawn, shivering in what is certainly not a midsummer night. Less ambition in this production and we would have a fantastic show on our hands. But still, it’s different, and it’s meant to be a comedy, so go on, see it: - there is definitely a laugh or two.
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