The OUDS international tour describes itself as the “pinnacle of any student’s involvement with drama” – not without cause, as this tour which is associated with Thelma Holt kickstarted the careers of the likes of Rosamund Pike and Felicity Jones – both names writ large in the programme for this show.
This year’s production, manned to the brim by this generation’s would-be Pikes and Jones, is of A Midsummer Night’s Dream – directed by Will Felton. It was fitting on one of the warmest July evenings I can remember, to be ushered into the secluded idyll of Brasenose quad, to be drawn into the magic and the wonder of the Bard’s most outlandish romp through romance and dreams. The incessant bells of University Church, a police helicopter, and at one notable point, a pigeon, may have punctuated the evening but failed to spoil the magic of this production.
As is the form with any student Shakespeare production, this Dream was transposed from the lofty acropolis and heady groves of Classical Athens to the sooty lows of “1920s industrial Bradford”. I can only presume that director, costume designer, and production hairdresser all share in the same fervent love for the sharp lines and thick woollen suits of the BBC’s Peaky Blinders.
It is a shame that this exciting and fresh angle on the production did not extend particularly far beyond costume or hair – with the Mechanicals (particularly Tommy Siman’s Bottom and James Mooney’s Quince) and Demetrius (Calam Lynch) being the only actors capable of summoning up a half decent Brummy accent. So yet again we have a production playing lip service to an interesting theme or reimagining, but failing to meaningfully incorporate these ideas into the action, other than in purely aesthetic terms.
As excited as I was for a faithful reconstruction of the woes of Thomas Shelby in iambic pentameter, I can’t really fault this production for failing to double down on conceptual underpinnings – it made this a solid but relatively straightforward production of a MSND, rather than one that overreaches itself.
Four entangled lovers comprise the main body of the action – Hermia (Clemi Collett), Helena (Ellie Lowenthal), Lysander (Cassian Bilton) and Demetrius (Calam Lynch). It’s a little bit convoluted, but Demetrius betrothed to Hermia, Lysander and Helena are deeply in love, whilst Helena’s adoration for Demetrius is left unrequited. The powers that be in Athens have decided that Demetrius and Hermia must marry – leading Lysander and Hermia to elope from the city together, hotly pursued by a thwarted Demetrius and lovelorn Helena.
The lovers excelled when grating up against one another – the conflicts and losses occasionally showing genuine flares of frisson-inducing passion.
I didn’t quite follow all of the characterisation – Lynch’s brusque Brummy Demetrius felt very earnest, in stark and confusing juxtaposition with Bilton’s foppish and farcical Lysander; Lowenthal showed an impressive range, but a lack of continuity made Helena’s characterisation feel slightly disjointed over the course of the play, whilst Collett’s Hermia reached an intensity during her perceived betrayal which it struggled to reach elsewhere. These Athenian nobles collide with the magical world of the fairies – where a lover’s tiff between Oberon and Titania leads to a long and similarly convoluted series of hijinx.
The absolute stand out performer in this section was Ali Porteous as Puck – an unparalleled level of manic energy brought a sorely needed dynamism to several scenes. The Mechanicals (Bottom’s acting troupe) played out Pyramus and Thisbee at its most melodramatic, hectic and side-splittingly funny. The attention to detail in the characterisation of the players must be lauded – a toe-curlingly awkward Flute (Isaac Calvin) and a startlingly balletic Snout (Nils Behling).
Overall, when tight direction combined with strong characterisation, the drama hit brilliant and entertaining peaks; however, occasional drops in pace and rhythm of speech left some scenes feeling slack and overlong.
An idea that has increasingly gained traction in Oxford theatre of late is the concept of ‘physical theatre’ – try playing bingo with this phrase in the programmes, previews and marketing materials of various plays come Michaelmas. Therefore, it is hardly surprising that this production similarly incorporated some tried and tested techniques to express thematic overtures through the physicality of the actors. The Dream opened with an oddly mechanical dance – wherein the doting, scheming, valiant lovers of Athens contested one another on the field of love – the course of which, we are told, never did run smooth.
The jerkiness of the choreography here suggested some sense of predetermination – later compounded by the intervention of Puck, who repositions the dancers into a variety of compromising positions. This opening sequence plays powerfully upon the themes of free choice in love, and intervention (both social and magical), which stands between our heroes and happiness.
However, as with physicality elsewhere in the play, some really phenomenal ideas were undermined by a sloppiness that can only be a consequence of under-rehearsal – hopefully something that will improve over the course of the run.
The music was an outstanding aspect of this production – lunging haphazardly from “electroswing, to R&B, to Bosnian ska” in perfect alignment with the action of the play (although again, failing to live up to the promise of 1920s Bradford). The band primarily formed of Bottom’s acting troupe brought moments of high energy that picked up the pace amongst occasional lulls in a play that comfortably fills out its three hour running time.
When this production shone, it really shone – a subtlety of language and expression which is rare in student drama.