The garden show is an Oxford institution; like punting or drinking at midday, it is part of that host of wonderful distractions that keeps us far away from the library during Trinity term. My first introduction to outdoor theatre in Oxford was New College MCR’s delightful production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and it proved to be as diverting as expected. This is great entertainment that is only marred by a sluggish start, and should prove to be a pleasant way to while away a couple of hours.
Shakespeare’s tale of romance, enchantment and confusion intertwines three separate plotlines, and this production deftly handles each while maintaining an overall tone of playful wonder. A group of young Athenians, by turns love-struck and lovelorn, run into the forest seeking to escape draconian law; nearby, an acting troupe prepares a play for the viewing pleasure of the Duke of Athens and his new bride, and a troop of fairies who happen upon the mortals use magic to mischievous ends. This is mostly light-hearted comedy, and the directors’ decision to choose the New College Gardens as the backdrop to the play’s events is a judicious one. The gardens are verdant and beautiful, the costumes are simple but pretty, and in the fading sunlight of the summer evening, it became easy to believe that fairies exist.
Costumes and set aside, it is the actors that really bring this play to life. Most of this large cast is competent, but there are some clear standout performances here, notably Helena (Olivia Waring) and Nick Bottom (James Golding). Waring’s Helena is a delight to watch, and she flounces about the forest in pursuit of her beloved Demetrius (Richard Foord) with a desperation that is simultaneously endearing and hilarious. Golding’s Bottom is a self-satisfied, preening masterpiece, and he modulates his voice and milks every pause to superb comic effect. When the young Athenians awake from their sleep and discover that their hearts have taken a sorcery-induced about-turn, the resultant scene is deliciously chaotic, and when the acting troupe finally presents their play to the Duke, I could not stop laughing.
The beginning of this play could be tidied up, as it dragged a little in its first half an hour – too much standing around with little movement, combined with a serious volume problem that only somewhat improved as the evening went on. The stagnation of the beginning worried me, but the actors eventually warmed up, and before I knew it, I was enchanted.