Magdalen Players’ A Midsummer Night’s Dream: a night of magic and mayhem

It’s Trinity term, the sun is shining, what better time to stage a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream? Shakespeare’s enchanting play has been resurrected and reconstructed many times before, and in Magdalen’s President’s Garden madness and dreaming reigns once more, directed by William Shackleton and Freyja Harrison-Wood. Before entering the garden itself, the immersion has already begun, actors and music guiding you towards the seating. The play hasn’t even started and already Shakespeare’s Athens is beginning to feel alive. Indeed, it is this liminality between performance and audience that is given its foundation in the setting, where the lights strung throughout the shrubbery glow invitingly, and picnic blankets at the front allow the audience to sit with the performers. Some audience interaction furthers the fluidity between stage and crowd. The creative use of staging in the gardens means that we are in the scene, part of the environment. Sweet aromas from the garden elevate the atmosphere, perfuming the performance so that all senses are enthralled. Wisteria tapering along the walls acted as the perfect backdrop to the central raised stage. However, it didn’t stop there, as the actors were brought to the audience, using the garden itself as part of the staging to dance on grass and climb trees. 

They may have kept the Shakespearean English, but this production refuses to replay the same scenes of old, and breathes new life by forming connections and twists to give a new edge to the classic narrative. One such innovation is it being Oberon rather than Titania falling under the spell of ‘love-in-idleness’, raising questions of love, sexuality and gender in the same playful spirit of the original, so that there’s something for fans old and new. Another interesting interpretation was Alice Wyles and Aravind Ravi playing both Titania/Hippolyta and Oberon/Theseus respectively, suggesting the parallels between the fairy and mortal worlds and self-reflexively expanding the work. All the actors handled the Shakespearean discourse and soliloquies effortlessly, imbuing real emotion into the characters and balancing comedic elements with more emotional plot points to convey the rich plurality of interpretive potential that is the source material. However, it was not only the speeches, but the choreography for fight scenes and other moments of chaos that added a joyful dynamism. Especial credit has to go to the central characters of Puck, the two pairs of lovers, Bottom, and Titania and Oberon. These demanding roles were performed with spectacular dexterity by the actors, so that they remained the central interest despite the incredible scenery around them. Even if it had been a blank stage in an empty room, the cast would have conjured up the life of the play through their performances alone. All the actors did a phenomenal job in transporting the audience to another world, one where dreaming and reality blend and intersect. And of course, it would be remiss not to mention the starring role of Scrumpy the dog, who gave an adorable cameo, much to the delight of the audience. 

Despite being a student production, there were no holds barred in the stagecraft, which really elevated the play. Audio was used to great effect in scenes that emphasise Puck’s supernatural powers, and lighting heightened both drama and comedy. Both devices were put to especially hilarious use in Shackleton’s personal favourite scene, involving Bottom’s seduction by Oberon to the music of ‘I Put a Spell on You’. They also combine once more for comedic effect in the play-within-a-play, hyperbolising the deliberately melodramatic performance.  

Being out in nature as it grows dark has its own sense of magical whimsy that feeds into the fantasy of the performance, as the encroaching darkness immerses the audience into the dream-like state of the play, literally becoming a midsummer’s night. Costume designer Kathrine Surgay said she especially enjoyed designing the fairy costumes and it shows, the incredibly fun costumes are dripping with character and effectively flesh out the world of the play in lurid detail. A Midsummer Night’s Dream at its core thrives on spectacle, and this production ensured that it was a feast for the senses throughout. The lighting grew more enchanting as the night drew on, enhancing Oberon’s crown, the fairies’ makeup, Titania’s magic staff and especially the magical potency of the light from the ‘love-in-idleness’ flowers. These fantastical florae were central to the magic and the mania of the play, having equal effect on the magical and the mortal, showing that we are all fools to love. 

As the play ended and we all awoke from the collective dream, I couldn’t help but wonder at such a vivacious and most of all fantastically fun performance. This production feels like a natural extension of the original play, bringing it into the modern age in a fresh and inventive fashion whilst keeping the fantastical elements that make this performance a quintessential Shakespearean comedy. 

Image credit: The Magdalen Players

Image description: The Magdalen Players performing A Midsummer Night’s Dream.