Wilton’s Music Hall – until Saturday 30th June 2018
Reviewed by Antonia Hebbert
Brush up your Shakespeare before seeing this production by the Faction Ensemble. If you don’t know that the actors are changing seamlessly between three distinct sets of characters, you will soon be as lost as the young lovers whose mix-ups are part of the plot. As long as you know roughly who’s who and when, this is a fine and funny Midsummer Night’s Dream, and a celebration of the power of theatre to weave a spell.
The Faction gives us a very stripped down production: an empty stage, a big moon-like light suspended above it, and eight actors doubling or tripling up roles as young lovers, fairies, and ‘rude mechanicals’ (workers), who are putting on a play within the play. Instead of props and scenery, there are changes in sound (Yaiza Varona), light (Ben Jacobs) and the actors’ highly expressive physicality, to signal the change from human affairs to fairies to comedy and back. The movement director is Richard James Neale, and there are some wonderful moments, such as the physical tangle of characters who have got themselves tied up in emotional knots. Fairies must always be a bit of a challenge but here they are very subtle – just hands and arms transform Bottom into a donkey, and the effect is quite uncanny.
Willton’s Music Hall is the beautiful bare-bones setting for all this, the world’s oldest grand music hall, itself stripped back to bricks, metal and plaster, with its own history of raucous entertainment. Sometimes the actors’ words got lost in the space, but mostly the ensemble achieved their aim of conveying the richness and vividness of the text. Every ounce of earthy comedy is extracted. Lowri Izzard was a beautifully clear Hermia, moving from noble calm to thwarted rage; Laura Evelyn was appealingly down to earth as Helena. Herb Guanalo morphed without missing a beat between authoritative Oberon and comical Quince. Linda Marlowe made a cheery busybody Puck, though not always easy to hear. Christopher Hughes burst onto the stage as a larger-than-life, larger-than-everything Bottom, and was plain brilliant at being part man, part donkey.
The play ends on a high note of comedy, with the workers’ own shambolic little play, a send-up of clunky drama. In the end, we’re reminded that like the characters, we too have been held in a dream: the real magic is in the power of words and actors to suspend our everyday world.