A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM (AS YOU LIKE IT)
Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Monday 13th August 2012
A Midsummer Night’s Dream features a bunch of amateur actors, the ‘Mechanicals’ who rehearse and present the ancient story of Pyramus and Thisbe to an audience comprised of the Athenian royal family. Their performance is one of the funniest scenes in all Shakespeare and is the springboard for this production by Russian director Dmitry Krymov.
On the surface the show appears to have borrowed its aesthetic from latter-day silent movie hit, The Artist: everyone’s in black tie, much of the show is performed in silence, and there is even a scene-stealing little dog. The sparse dialogue is in Russian but is helpfully translated onto screens – like the captions in silent movies.
Flanked by the well-to-do ‘audience’ in makeshift royal boxes, the company recounts their version of the myth using mime, clowning, acrobatics and, above all (literally), a pair of fifteen-foot high puppets that represent the doomed lovers. The ‘unfinished’ and ‘under rehearsed’ aspects, for which they apologise profusely, add to the enjoyment. Will each clumsy acrobatic stunt come off? Will the giant Pyramus topple into the (real) audience?
The whole enterprise is an absurdist fantasy and a delight from start to finish. The humour is both broad (Pyramus sports a hydraulic phallus of which Aristophanes would have been proud) and subtle: there is much to do with our perception of theatre and the absurdity of human interaction.
Persistent heckler Liya Akhedzhakova rattles off a tall story about a lion by way of interjection; Alexy Kokhanov is the voice of Pyramus, serenading his doll-faced Thisbe in a beautiful German tenor. Sergey Melkonyan narrates in a world-weary manner – indeed, the entire company has a Keatonesque deadpan delivery, resigned to their lot and, paradoxically, celebrating our lot.
Venya the little dog is cute and remarkably on cue. The use of real animals makes me uneasy in entertainment (and in sport) (and in cuisine) and I spotted a wire attached to Venya’s collar. I hope he was being fed verbal instructions from offstage rather than anything more sinister.
The piece is aware of its ‘avant garde’ nature – ‘avant garde’ in the traditional sense, using approaches, skills and techniques that are time-honoured and well-worn. There is something quite nostalgic in its execution and not the slightest whiff of pretension. It is certainly one of the most enjoyable ninety minutes I’ve spent in a theatre in recent months.