Walking down Shaftesbury Avenue to the Tristan Bates theatre near Leicester Square, the eternal question of ‘who do I know who will make it big’ became surreally pertinent. But in spite of the setting of the OUDS summer tour, the hunger, scale and ambition of London’s theatre land meant it all did not feel so different to a good night in Oxford theatre.
The parallel between the bright lights and Oxford is not trivial; it explains a lot of what was good and not so good about this production. Like many high-powered Oxford pursuits, the sense of place and time haunts the enterprise. In this case, the annual Thelma Holt production sells itself as a platform for the next generation of big names. The west end with its history, promises as prodigious a future as the paths historic Oxford talent have carved out. As with many such Oxford things, living up to a future promised by the past, is a mixed blessing.
You feel this in the raw, almost rabid sense of drive in the cast. As the show races ahead, the actors shed an athletic athletic volume of sweat from their mannered brows. Their vocal chords are put through their paces in escalating shouting matches; their footwear ripped (though perhaps intentionally) from the stomping and pouncing they put themselves (and each other) through. Make no mistake; this production has a lot riding on it.
It hits you most when watching the four leads. Lysander (Cassian Bilton) and Demetrius (Calam Lynch) are the two male leads whose quests for Hermia (Clemi Collette) and Helena (Heloise Lowenthal) are sabotaged by the romantic machinations of the forest fairies. At the climax of the deception, both chase Helena, leading them to comically challenge each other to a fight. The net result is that both Lynch and Bilton leap through the air or toss themselves in prostration with alarming violence. When on two feet, Lynch purposefully gyrates in the direction of his beloved. The extremity of the performances by all four was in many places inspired “Hermia is a fucking cow”. But there was a limit past which the extremes of their inventive desperation became, bluntly saturated.
This ferocity was rife throughout the production in both acting and direction. It reached its climax in the sexualized encounters between the fairies and the mechanicals. In the key scene where the fairies break the spell, the main characters are led by leather clad fairies to the front of the audience as they howl like dogs while bondaged with dog collars. It was an image whose power summed up the excess that is the strength and potential downfall of this production.
At it’s best, the energy translated into genuinely very funny and joyous moments that connected the audience with the fun of the text and the fun actors seemed to be having with it. Very often these moments came when things calmed down. For example in the staging of Pyramus and Thisbe, the mechanicals (brilliantly led by Tommy Simon’s louche rendition of Bottom) the spectators play of each other fantastically with the leads’ reactions making the scene twice as funny. In this regard Maddy Walker really shined as a sort of beer drinking granny, whose melodramatic involvement gave the scene a whole new comic depth.
Will Felton’s overall direction likewise had moments of brilliance. The original mis en scene of Athens is transposed to 1920s Bradford and the fairy kingdom is headed by a steam punk Oberon (Christian Bevan) complete with leather trench coat and goggles. The industrial setting combined with the fairies’ post-industrial punk look, perhaps makes sense in connecting the sexual/cultural liberation of punk with the industrial mis en scene. From this angle maybe “the fierce vexation of a dream” Oberon describes, is its potential to liberate, sexually and socially.
For sure, the dreaminess was down in large part to the fantastic use of music by the extremely talented Callum Akass who prepared some wonderful and diverse guitar and percussion arrangements. His rendition of Bowie’s ‘let’s dance’ was especially cool.
Although the picture was therefore mixed in the flux from subtlety to extremity, this was overall an excellent production. Part of what made it, is the ambition and expectation its prestige calls for. More importantly what made it was the skill and energy went in living up to it. No doubt this was a source of fierce vexation in handling the expectation to carry it of, explaining maybe the bombast at some of its more extreme moments. But no doubt, once the run gets underway the cast will settle into the performance to show with greater ease why their dream is warranted.