Bold, intense and richly comic, this wintry trip to the enchanted wood is fit for any season
A Midsummer Night’s Dream
Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh
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The Playhouse, Edinburgh
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Arsenic And Old Lace
Pitlochry Festival Theatre
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MIDSUMMER, Midwinter. Near the beginning of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, there’s a long, magnificent speech in which Titania, Queen of the Fairies, describes to her estranged lord, Oberon, the terrible consequences of the breakdown of their love. She conjures up a world in which the climate has changed, with the seasons out of order, fierce watery floods everywhere, and flowers budding in midwinter; and it’s typical of Matthew Lenton’s beautiful and haunting new production, at the Royal Lyceum Theatre for the next four weeks, that it hears and responds to that speech with the kind of detailed, astonished attention that this familiar play rarely receives, while feeling free to react to it in completely new ways.
So in an echo of Lenton’s recent controversial Edinburgh Festival show Wonderland, this Dream offers what is sometimes a dark journey through the looking-glass between reality and fantasy, into an Athenian forest of ice and snow where the characters shiver in the cold blast of winter; only at the end, when Titania and Oberon seal their reconciliation with a kiss, does a sudden spring sweep across designer Kai Fischer’s austere, dream-like landscape.
And Lenton also hears, with a rare intensity, the story of the rude mechanicals. He sees how their desperate bid for theatrical fame connects with our 21st-century X-Factor culture; and he listens to the speech in which Shakespeare calls the events of the night “Bottom’s dream”, wrapping the story in a framework which imagines Bottom’s life at a sad crisis, when a white-clad team of fairies arrive to transport him to the forest. In this dream, the four lovers – normally in the foreground of the story – therefore appear more like brightly-coloured avatars from an online game-world; they leap onto the stage, in Mark Melville’s terrific sound design, with the sharp zapping sound of science-fiction characters switching dimensions.
For all this bold and sometimes melancholy interplay between different levels of reality, though, Lenton’s production remains both richly comic and strikingly faithful to Shakespeare’s verse; his young company follow the text as if it were a golden thread guiding them through this wildwood of deception and illusion, and it richly repays their efforts. Jordan Young offers an extraordinary central performance as Bottom, the working man with the soul of a poet; Flavia Gusmao rises to shimmering heights of poetry as Titania. And in the end, the laughter that greets the mechanicals’ play also has a rich dimension of pity and sorrow; for in the winter journey of this Dream, we come to know just how much this creative effort means to them, both as the chance of a lifetime for a little fame and prosperity, and as an escape from an everyday reality that is sometimes almost unbearable.
The new tribute musical American Idiot – built around the 2004 Green Day album of the same name – also features a coming-of-age drama about a group of young people venturing away from home. This time, though, the journey takes three smalltown friends, Johnny, Will and Tunny, and follows them from the blandness of suburban California – “Jingletown, USA” – into the drug-crazed urban jungle of the city, the hell of war in Iraq, and the emotional rollercoaster of teenage parenthood.
Presented by Work Light Productions, with a cast straight from California, this is a rare show among tribute musicals, bursting with the energy of a hot-off-the-press original production, faithful to the fierce post-punk music of one of America’s most powerful bands, backed by a wall of flickering television screens full of apocalyptic early-21st -century news bulletins, and shaped more like an intense, sung-through rock oratorio – on the lines of Quadrophenia – than a conventional musical.
What really grabs the attention, though, is the alternating lyrical sweetness and sheer punk ferocity of the music – including great Green Day anthem Boulevard Of Broken Dreams – matched every step of the way by the inventive energy of Steven Hoggett’s choreography, and some terrific ensemble work from Michael Mayer’s 20-strong cast. It’s an intense musical and visual experience; and in its anger, its despair, and its sense of a helpless tension between numb conventionality and garish self-destruction, it seems to speak for a generation, and for our time.
There are plenty of American idiots in Joseph Kesselring’s classic 1940s comedy Arsenic And Old Lace; or at least, an entire traditional American family, living in old Brooklyn, who turn out to be barking mad, and given to homicide. It’s an odd fact about Kesselring’s grand old play that despite its surreal comic energy, it seems oddly well-grounded in a sharp perception of the strange mix of neighbourly piety and murderous violence on which America’s fortunes are founded; at any rate, the tale of the maiden-aunt Brewster sisters, their psychopatic brothers and their strangely normal nephew Mortimer is a Rolls Royce of comic drama, and should deliver an effortless evening of almost continuous laughter.
The problem with Richard Baron’s autumn production at Pitlochry is that instead of simply trusting the text, almost everyone in the cast – with the exception of an immaculate Sally Grace as Miss Abby – wastes a huge amount of energy trying and failing to be super-funny, mugging, mocking and throwing themselves around the stage like clowns. It’s an approach that disrupts the play’s comic rhythm, and shows a sad lack of confidence in Kesselring’s beautifully-constructed text; and although there’s plenty to enjoy in Ken Harrison’s handsome Victorian-Gothic set, and in the sheer wit of the play, the result is a mildly entertaining evening, rather than one of joyous, uninterrupted comic pleasure.
• A Midsummer Night’s Dream runs until 17 November; American Idiot until 27 October; Arsenic And Old Lace until 3 November.