Review: A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Bristol Old Vic

Handspring Puppet Company, dir. Tom Morris

How do you represent a charm on stage? How do you conjure a retinue of fairies? How do you show a man transformed into a donkey?

Basil Jones and Adrian Kohler of Handspring Puppet Company are at their best when tackling the impossible. Their best-known venture in the UK is War Horse (how do you create a horse with enough personality to charm an audience?) and now they’ve again joined forces with that production’s director, Tom Morris, with a very different story in their sights.

Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream seems, at first, to be the perfect play for the Handspring treatment. It has illusion at its heart, questions of truth, identity and play-acting. And yet, it is also one of Shakespeare’s most human works: who doesn’t recognise their young self in the four impetuous lovers? Who hasn’t been angry, jealous, dizzy over love? And it’s this examination of a very human emotion that is lost in Handspring’s stagecraft.

Tom Morris’s production at Bristol Old Vic transfers the action to a workshop space. In Vicki Mortimer’s design the stage is surrounded by half-painted planks, tools, hanging dust-sheets. The set has the half-finished coming-into-being appearance that is the trademark of Handspring’s puppets. The cast wear loose jeans, dungarees and checked shirts.

The four human lovers – Hermia played by Akiya Henry, Demetrius played by Kyle Lima, Helena by Naomi Cranston and Lysander by Alex Felton – all have a puppet version of themselves. They each both play the role and operate their puppet self. Sometimes they direct their speech at an actor, sometimes their puppet. The result is distraction and dilution. During the one scene in which the mini-lovers are abandoned completely as the two men fight over Helena, who in turn scraps with Hermia, it feels like an exhilarating release and a pity that actors of this calibre are hampered by cumbersome – and largely unnecessary – puppets.

There are nice moments: when Hermia tells Lysander to ‘lie further off’ the two actors exchange puppets in a neat ornament on the theme of Shakespeare’s text.

Where the puppetry does work, however, is in Morris’s imagining of the fairy world. Puck is a pulsating jumble of floating workshop objects – now a dog, now a giant (although it also reminded me of the computer game character Rayman…). Peaseblossom, Cobweb and Mustardseed are at once endearing and menacing. One leans towards the audience sing-songing ‘kissy-kissy’ before its mouth snaps open to show sharpened fangs and its eyes turn red.

But Bottom is the heart of this production. His transformation is nothing short of astonishing. Miltos Yerolemou gets laughs in all the right places as we’re introduced to the band of mechanicals. But when he returns – as an ass, the audience’s laughter is disbelief, anarchy. Yerolemou is placed in a contraption which turns him almost entirely upside-down, his bare bottom (see what they did there?) in the air, two donkey ears attached to his feet. It is the most imaginative moment in the production by some way – though obviously presents some challenges to the actor as he tries to deliver his lines…

This is the not the dream Dream but there are moments which capture the vertiginous anarchy of Shakespeare’s story. There is a sense that Handspring and Morris are still experimenting and the end result might yet be an astonishingly rude, ravishingly sexy evening of revels. But it’s not there yet.

A Midsummer Night’s Drear runs at Bristol Old Vic until 4 May

  1. A lovely review that is elegantly written and captures the essentials of the production

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