Theatre review: Midsummer Night's Dream - A Play For The Nation

It's the striking photograph of the late King George VI and his Queen, Elizabeth, that catches they eye, in the programme for this ground-breaking Royal Shakespeare Company production, specially created to mark this year's 400th anniversary of Shakespeare's death.
Martin Turner is magnificent as a thoughtful and baffled Bottom. Picture: Topher McGrillsMartin Turner is magnificent as a thoughtful and baffled Bottom. Picture: Topher McGrills
Martin Turner is magnificent as a thoughtful and baffled Bottom. Picture: Topher McGrills

Midsummer Night’s Dream - A Play For The Nation | Citizens’ Theatre, Glasgow | Rating ****

There they stand, perfectly dressed – he in his naval uniform, she in her usual elegant coat and dress, with large hat; but their faces are set in grief and resolution, and the backdrop is the rubble of war in the east end of London.

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And what the image says is that the RSC means it, when it calls this production “A Play For The Nation”. For this is a show, brilliantly directed by Erica Whyman, that tries to conjure up the spirit of the late 1940’s, not only in the bombed-out warehouse walls of Tom Piper’s set – transformed by four slender red pillars that sometimes catch the light in wholly magical ways – but in its image of a society still class-ridden, and full of post-war repressions, but somehow reaching out towards a new ideal of inclusion. So in every city it visits, from London and Truro to Bradford and Glasgow, this Midsummer Night’s Dream brings together a professional company of RSC actors playing the courtiers, lovers, and senior fairies, and a local amateur company playing – well – the “rude mechanicals”.

And although that sounds like an idea that might reinforce old ideas about class rather than challenging them, Whyman’s production explores the transforming forces in Shakespeare’s play – love, madness and poetry – in ways that blur and question those divisions as powerfully as in any production I’ve seen. This is one production in which the traditional “doubling” of the Duke with Oberon, and of his bride Hippolyta with Titania, might actually have helped to make that point, and is slightly missed.

For the most part, though, the Glasgow version of this rare Dream works superbly, with Martin Turner of the Citizens’ Dream Players turning in a magnificent performance as a handsome, thoughtful and baffled Bottom, and the students of Shawlands Academy in fine voice as junior members of the fairy train. Musical director Tarek Merchant and his live band provide superb music, from jazz to madrigals; among the professional cast, Mercy Ojelade, Chris Nayak, Jack Holden and Laura Riseborough excel themselves as the four lovers. And if this show is two hours and 45 minutes long, it’s because it works its magic by never rushing Shakespeare’s poetry; and by letting every beautifully-spun word of it take its transforming effect, whether the speaker is a lord or a lover, or a weaver dreaming of a brave new world, both beautiful and strange.

• Citizens’ Theatre, 
Glasgow, until Saturday.