Those who've been on the fence about seeing a production of one of Shakespeare's most beloved plays using puppets should probably know that puppets are not the weirdest thing about Bristol Old Vic's A Midsummer Night's Dream. So be forewarned: if puppets freak you out, you might want to spend your ticket money elsewhere. However, if you're open to thinking about theater in a different, more metaphorical way, this is just the sort of play that will challenge your boundaries. And those sorts of plays do not come around often.
Bristol Old Vic and its partner Handspring Puppet Company have set this Midsummer in a future primitive world, where there's lots of wood, lots of drab colors, and everyone's dressed like a lumberjack or laborer or some kind — even the fairies. It's a far cry from the bright, shimmery sets and costumes that are usually used in productions of the play, but it works. This setting taps into some of the darker elements of the story, like Theseus' conquering of the Amazonian Hippolyta in battle only to conquer her again in marriage, and Hermia's father sentencing her to death unless she marries the man he has chosen. Rather than frosting over these aspects of the story with fairy wings and green forests, this bleak world that the characters live in invites the audience to question what we're seeing. What Amazonian queen would willingly submit to marrying the man who presumably killed many of her soldiers? What kind of father chooses death for his own daughter? By exposing the nuances of the story, Bristol Old Vic gives us a modernized version of the play, in the most subtle, elegant sense of the word.
We meet the puppets almost immediately, when Hermia's father brings Hermia (Akiya Henry), Lysander (Alex Felton), and Demetrius (Kyle Lima) to Duke Theseus to present his grievance with his daughter. The three young lovers all carry small doll-like puppets of themselves with them, and it's those puppets who act for them in this scene. (When Helena, played by Naomi Cranston, comes into the play she too has a doll.) Like the setting, the puppets bring a certain gravity to the words the actors speak; their wooden faces are set in serious, reserved expressions, and their glittering eyes seem both alive and cold at the same time. It certainly enhances the fact that the three are being treated by both Hermia's father and Theseus as puppets, not self-determining beings. Later, when Hermia and Lysander make plans to meet in the wood and run away from Athens, they stop using their tiny avatars and speak directly to each other.
It would be easy if these moments of self-determination decided when the doll puppets are used and when they are not, but that doesn't exactly seem to be the case. Throughout the play, there were times when the use of the puppets seemed almost random. The device certainly has the potential to throw viewers off, as it did me at first, but I fairly quickly accepted characters simply had these little versions of themselves to act on their behalf when they wanted them to. The idea was similar to the world Phillip Pullman created in the His Dark Materials trilogy, where everyone had a daemon.
As for Titania (Saskia Portway) and Oberon (David Ricardo Pearce), who are in a sense alter-egos of Hippolyta and Theseus, their puppets consist of a huge wooden head and in Oberon's case, a large mechanical hand. The fairy king and queen are more terrible than they're usually portrayed, speaking in booming voices and often accompanied by ghostly music. While impressive, there were many moments when this treatment seemed inconsistent with the words they were speaking — Titania and Oberon are really just engaged in a petty game of jealousy and trickery, with Titania withholding her affections and Oberon wanting revenge on her for not giving him her little Indian boy. And what form does that revenge take? It's nothing terrifying. He just wants to make her fall in love with something ridiculous.
Which brings us to Bottom, the actor-turned-donkey who becomes the object of the charmed Titania's affections. He is part of a whole different storyline involving a group of amateur actors who have a really bad play that they want to put on for Theseus' and Hippolyta's wedding celebration. They agree to meet in the woods (just like the young lovers) to rehearse, which is when Bottom wanders off and is turned into a donkey — an ass, that is — by the mischievous Puck, who in this production is an ingenious collection of woodcarving tools operated by three actors at once. Miltos Yerolemou, who plays Bottom as well as Hermia's father Egeus, is an exceptional Bottom, finding every opportunity for a laugh in Bottom's pompous diva-ness. But the ass, which is taken literally here, was a little much. When he's transformed, a bare-bottomed Bottom rolls onto the stage on a kind of bicycle contraption with donkey legs, with his head where the tail would be, and his ass, well — you get the picture. The gimmick was funny for a second or two, but became so distracting that it was hard to stay focused on what was being said. Especially when Titania was kissing and caressing his "face."
After that mess was finished, however, Bottom and the other actors put on what is one of the funniest "Pyramus and Thisbe" play-within-a-plays I've ever seen. The several groups who left at intermission, perhaps in protest of the ass, missed some incredible physical comedy there.
It goes without saying that the Shakespearean-trained actors were all consummate professionals, seemingly completely at home with the Bard's words. But three actors deserve special mention. Portway as Hippolyta emanated such strength and beauty that one could believe she actually was an Amazon. She brought considerable pathos to Hippolyta's role, which is generally such a small one. When Theseus is pronouncing judgment on Hermia, telling her she must live as a nun or marry the man her father chooses, Portway's accusatory looks at her husband-to-be and her obvious sympathy with Hermia speak volumes, even though her lines are few. She evinces the same power as Titania, and she even convincingly dotes upon Bottom's bottom.
Pearce as Theseus and Oberon is so in command of his lines that you can hardly imagine him speaking in anything but iambic pentameter. And Henry as Hermia gives more life and feeling to her furious rant at Helena than you're ever likely to see again. Anger in Shakespeare is so often treated either as a high and noble feeling or made completely ridiculous. Henry managed to simply make it real.
And I should mention that though Bristol Old Vic has taken a few liberties with the text, there was only one that really got to me. For some unfathomable reason, they chose to cut Puck's famous final monologue, the one that starts "If we shadows have offended /Think but this, and all is mended." It's one of the Bard's most famous monologues, as well as one of his most perfect endings. I missed it dearly.
So while A Midsummer Night's Dream is not a slam dunk, anyone with more than a passing interest in theater owes it to themselves to see it. If nothing else, it's a chance to see just how avant-garde your tastes really are.