Garden plays are one thing we can look forward to as Trinity drags on and spring slowly turns to summer. Kicking things off is Brasenose College’s new production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which presents the high watermark for such productions in the weeks to come.
The thing that first leaps out about this production is its location. With a small stage set out in one of the quads and a marquee under which the audience sits, the play makes active use of the surrounding area. The actors run round corners and emerge from side doors into the quad, approaching and exiting the stage from all angles, rather than sticking to simple ‘exit/enter’, ‘stage left/stage right’. It turns what could easily have been just a gimmick into something truly special; there is a real sense of fluidity to the staging and the odd confused passer-by really adds to the effect. One of the play’s biggest strengths is its ability, and indeed its willingness, to turn Brasenose into a strange and mystical place. Which, to be fair, it already is. This is the city of dreaming spires after all.
Adding to this is a top-notch set of actors, whose performances only heighten the sense that we are spying on an unfolding set of magical events. Rufus Stirling and Christy Callaway-Gale play Theseus and Hippolyta respectively, and, in a nice touch, also play Oberon and Titania. The two have a nice on-stage repartee, with Stirling being particularly adept at timing his comic lines, and Callaway-Gale having a knack for the more physical aspects of the performance. Stirling also spends a significant amount of time alone on stage with Laurie Beckoff’s Puck. This pair also works well together, as Beckoff emanates an air of gleeful subversion in contrast to Stirling’s stark authority. Beckoff herself is a compelling stage presence, playing the role with all the mercurial energy it requires, and displaying wonderful ability to flit about on the edges of scenes before gleefully pulling the rug out from the other characters’ feet and taking centre stage. However, a few of her line-readings come across as forced and more than a little grating, particularly annoying as they feel like an attempt to make Puck self-consciously ‘wacky’, when Beckoff is perfectly interesting enough already. Besides, Bottom already has this play’s monopoly on silliness and Robbie Belok absolutely shines, displaying a mixture of charisma and stupidity, keeping the audience in stitches.
The direction is a bit more of a mixed bag. A few moments of physical comedy, particularly in the first half, fall a bit flat, and the technical limitations of the venue sometimes rear their head, with microphones occasionally jumping in volume unexpectedly. But once everyone hits their stride the thing works marvellously well, with a number of excellent visual gags, including one involving a bunch of flowers, which I won’t spoil, but which is arguably the highlight of the play.
On the whole, despite a few slight fumbles, this production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream is an absolute delight, worth seeing just so you can witness Brasenose College become Shakespeare’s enchanted forest, if only for a couple of hours. This is not just a play you watch. This is a play you experience.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream will be performed at Brasenose College until Saturday 17th May, at 2pm.