The funniest humour is self-deprecating…
Add in some light-hearted destruction of the very institutions of theatre (and some superhero costumes) and you go some way towards describing Sean Holmes’ hilarious and utterly mad production of ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ on now at the Lyric Hammersmith. But it somehow manages to keep to the play’s original tone through a commitment to bathos, surrealism and riotous fun.
Shakespeare’s play is set in ancient Greece and portrays events surrounding the marriage of the Duke of Athens, Theseus, and the Queen of the Amazons, Hippolyta. It effectively tells three stories; of four young Athenian lovers, some manipulative fairies and an amateur acting ensemble, The Mechanicals, who are putting on a production of “the most lamentable comedy and most cruel death of Pyramus and Thisbe”, for the Duke and Duchess.
It is this metatheatre, the ‘play within the play’ idea, that is elicited by Holmes’ outrageously original re-conception. The Mechanicals become the protagonists as well as the stage production team – and the play they are putting on is not just Pyramus and Thisbe but also A Midsummer’s Night Dream itself. They introduce the play and act as its house band, performing rock and be-bop accompaniments to famous soliloquies. They are also the sound engineers, visible throughout, making suitably dreamy sound effects on their Korg keyboards. And all this makes way for a lot of poking fun at noble Shakespearean theatrical artifice.
Puck is a strutting stagehand equipped with tool kit and can of lager. Mischievously, he dishes out Oberon’s magical love potion – which in this version is blue paint – watching from a camping chair (invisibly) as the madness ensues. Oberon himself is an ingenious comedy recreation. Brilliantly played by Jonathan Broadbent, he is a kind of geeky Austin Powers lookalike with small man syndrome. There is a great moment when his attempt at the stereotypical evil cackle is interrupted by a timeout to puff on his asthma inhaler. Lysander is re-imagined with similar comedy gusto. Having been unceremoniously splattered by Puck with Oberon’s love paint, he attempts seduction of Hermia through passionately ballads, swooning ridiculously in a manner reminiscent of Jemaine from Flight of the Conchords.
In essence, Holmes production suspends the suspension of disbelief. Actually, the play does well to confront a problem conveniently neglected by most productions of Shakespeare since the invention of stage lights, sound effects and wires – what happens when Shakespearean theatre meets the modern stage engineer? Do you add sound effects? Do you actually make cricket sounds? While we can’t imagine Shakespeare ever starting a play with, ‘this is going to be really bad,’ the self-reflexive theatricality and self-mockery would have made the great man proud.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream is open now at The Lyric Hammersmith until March 17th.
Text: William Severs