William Hazlitt wrote in 1817 that “The Midsummer Night’s Dream, when acted, is converted from a delightful fiction into a dull pantomime…The spectacle was grand; but the spirit was evaporated, the genius was fled.”
Few in the literary or theatrical world would agree with this today, but after watching Filter’s show this evening, I wonder if Hazlitt saw a similar production.
The show overall was not “dull”. It was lively, exciting and very funny. The spectacle was indeed grand. But there was no real emotion or depth – Shakespeare’s subtleties were lost. Filter’s slapstick, audience interaction, music, and contemporary jokes were great. Their delivery and interpretation of what Shakespeare survived the edit, not so much.
The set is simple enough, but looks good. All white, stained tiles lead to an empty fountain. A drumkit and various instruments sit opposite. This starkness will not survive the carnage of actors tearing through walls and the food throwing that is to follow.
The show opens with Peter Quint (George Fouracres) giving a lengthy monologue, effectively ten minutes of stand-up, often unrelated to the play. Fouracres is very entertaining (he is the driving force of the production) and he gets the audience well warmed-up. It’s a clever reinterpretation of Quint’s prologue to the mechanicals’ play within the original text. The Quint-led scenes in particular toy with the metafictional elements throughout. This is handled well.
Nonetheless, I wouldn’t go as far as agreeing with the assessment of The Independent, who called this show “wittily experimental”. This approach to Shakespeare is not innovative or even unusual. Food-fights with the audience, or characters bursting through the sides of the set, are funny, but not shocking. It’s an experiment that has been done many times before, and proven successful, but this means that we can now afford to acknowledge when the play becoming too far removed from the text and is reductive.
The opening scenes with the Duke and the four lovers were dull. Without David Ganly (Bottom) belting out rock-and-roll, or the actors throwing buns at the audience, the pace flags. Shakespeare should not, and need not, be boring. If you’re going to make jokes about the audience being “bored and alienated” at “irrelevant and outdated” drama, you’ve got to disprove this afterwards. Interspersing exciting scenes in modern English with stilted ones in the original language isn’t the way to do this. Filter never discover the potential in Shakespeare’s writing through all the mayhem.
As the plot develops, the weakness of these opening scenes lessens. The introduction of Kayla Meikle as Puck helps. She is very funny and fills in for the lack of stage presence in scenes without Fouracres. Upon entrance, Puck seems to be backstage crew – wearing dark dungarees and a toolbelt. This is a great design for the fairies, and I initially wondered why they didn’t continue it for Titania and Oberon. Oberon (Harry Jardine) is probably the character who interpreted the most originality, but I wasn’t sure this worked. The silliest character in the production (intentionally), he wears a superhero costume and bum bag, and is continually hapless and mocked. At first I found the character irritating, but looking around later-on I realised that the kids in the audience loved him. They were in hysterics at his frustration when he repeatedly fell through the stage.
Filter are aware of their strengths, and it was good that the mechanicals became the central characters. These five played great music, updated the play most interestingly, and got the best laughs. I would go as far as saying that they should scrap the other characters entirely and just do a spin-off adaptation focused on Quint, Bottom, and the “lads”, as they are here referred to. No-one would come expecting a faithful rendition of the script they know. Two hours would become plenty of time to interweave the Shakespeare, contemporary comedy, and music without restriction.
Ultimately, this is a show for families, not English students, but this doesn’t mean it’s not worth seeing. It is pantomime-like – Oberon even does evil laughs – but it confidently demonstrates the joy and fun of the pantomime form. It doesn’t matter that characters such as Theseus and Hippolyta have been cut. Its primary weakness is the bland insertion into this pantomime of some soullessly acted scenes. The other issue is that the levels of humour, wit and emotional depth contained within the text are lost to the physicality and slapstick.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream should demonstrate the unity of “The lunatic, the lover, and the poet” – but Filter only really cover lunacy. If you want an evening of mayhem, head to the Playhouse this week. If you watch Shakespeare for the writing, maybe wait until next time.