Review – A Midsummer Night’s Dream – Southwark Playhouse

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Last night I went with a group of friends to see A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Southwark Playhouse. I’d never been there before and was enticed to attend the performance strictly on the basis of the flyer I saw at the Union Theater last month – and the fact they said the whole performance took only 90 minutes*! (The previous Midsummer I’d seen, at the Roundhouse, seemed to go way too long, and I didn’t want a repeat of that, even on a Friday.) The flyer showed a girl made up to look like an apprentice Geisha (with a strong touch of The Mikado in her styling), and just looked so pretty and charming that I thought, hey, this looks like something that could really work, and it’s one of those cute little south London theatrical spaces that need my support, and why not go? So seven of us rolled the dice and descended on the Southwark Playhouse in hope of a good night out.

As it turns out, my hope was repaid in spades. Everything about this performance was a pleasure to me, from the sound design to the set to the movement, the costuming, the props, and (of course) the performance – including the number of actors they’d chosen to perform it (utterly fat-free at seven). Instead of the normal uncomfortable yuck I felt with the arrival of the usually painfully imaginary Greek monarchs** Theseus (Kenji Watanabe) and Hippolyta (You-Ri Yamanaka), I was actually pulled in my their regal bearing and effortlessly graceful movement (as they knelt on stage to accept the petitions of Egeus and the youngsters) and … by God, they’d created a court in front of me, and I bought that the humbly bowing Hermia (Nina Kwok) actually had her life on the line by daring to reject her father’s match. I don’t think Demetrius (David Lee-Jones) and Lysander (Matt McCooey) were entirely believable as samurai – but that was okay, we had a story to tell and the accommodation was a small one since the overall premise of the show (the ball that starts the drama rolling) had actually been made digestible to me for the first time ever.

With so much of the play pared away, the dialogue popped way to the fore, and I found myself paying far more attention and actually really being able to enjoy the poetry of Shakespeare’s words. The description of love and lovers seemed gorgeously suitable for a pre-Valentine’s play, and Lysander’s later rejection of Hermia as “an acorn … a dwarf!” incredibly harsh and cutting (and funny). Hermia and Helena (Julia Sandiford)’s light and dark pink kimono were both suitably romantic, young-lady appropriate, and plain enough to do double duty – or in this case triple duty, as they played themselves, two members of the acting troupe AND members of Titania’s fairy court! I was really impressed at how well the actors handled all of these transitions and that they were able to appropriately convey them with the addition of an apron or a mask, while the bodies remained dressed in the same colors (nice job to the costumer, whom I’m guessing is Wai Yin Kwok, credited as “designer” in the program). Possibly more impressive were the props, which consisted entirely of … fans. Not a bunch of fans, either, but about six, which were cups to be drunk from, flowers to be plucked, scripts, scrolls, you name it – everything except for the wall and the lion’s mane used by the Rude Mechanicals in their performance of Pyramus and Thisbe.

I also liked the way the performance was done movement-wise, in two ways. First, the hall was set up so that we were watching – er – theater in the oblong. You see, there was a long ramp down the middle, with a painting on both ends, and we the audience set up on both sides of the stage. And yet (though I was sat in the middle), I only felt once or twice like I was missing any of the action due to blocked sight lines. I liked having the actors exit from both ends of the theater – and I liked how they could appear at the top of the back wall (over the painting of the tree) or even from behind the stage (when Titania awakes to behold her lovely ass-headed Bottom).

The second thing I enjoyed about the movement was how it was used to convey character. This is most especially true in the case of Puck (Jay Oliver Yip, also Egeus and Quince of the acting troupe), who bounced along in a way that was entirely different from any “Puck-ish” fairy I had ever seen, and yet who was entirely believable as a supernatural being because of his movement. He also was good at conveying impishness, resentment, and a variety of other emotions through his body, and, as an actor, set himself up as an utterly different character from the uptight Egeus and the blowsy Quince. Titania got hairpins and lost her Hippolyta shawl to convey her change, but Puck pretty much just had to do his transformation with the way he walked. Very nice job!

Have I enthused enough? As we walked out, we were all chattering madly away about what a good time we’d had. One of my friends found Theseus occasionally a bit hard to understand, but no one complained about the use of Japanese – it all seemed to fit in nicely and I didn’t feel like we were losing any of the Shakespeare because of it. And we were talking about the irony of having the different actors play the different characters, and the fun of the fans, and the cool set, and … what a good evening it had been and what a find the theater was and on and on and I couldn’t remember the last time I’d walked out of a Shakespearean play with more energy than when we’d walked in and at the end of a work week, nonetheless. So hats off to Jonathan Man for his brilliant realization of this play and thank you to all of the people who came together to create this really great night out.

*Ultimately the play runs more like 120 minutes as there is an interval, and that 90 minutes is only if you see one of the school productions. Still, I was back in Tooting at about 10:15, which seemed quite reasonable.

**painful due to the utter dissociation with what I’d expect of BCE Greek performance. I mean, please, you can look at all the Greek theater you want and it never reads a bit like Shakespeare’s version of Greece.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Friday, February 13th, 2009. The show continues until February 28th.)

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7 Responses to “Review – A Midsummer Night’s Dream – Southwark Playhouse”

  1. Exit, pursued by a bear Says:

    Sounds like you had a FAR better time with Shakespeare than I was having at the Novello!

  2. Exit, pursued by a bear Says:

    Good gravy, remind me to wax lyrical about every show I go to see from now on, will you? My review is attracting sarcastic comments from THE CAST now. Shades of The Whingers’ comments about Loot!

  3. webcowgirl Says:

    Well, you’ll have to remember my ongoing battle with some ignorant hobbits who were big fans of LOTR (I think they were cast members, to tell the truth). And someone’s aunt or teacher or something really lost it about my review of Ballet Black. I wonder if newspapers get the same kind of vitriol?

  4. Review - Twelfth Night - Donmar at Wyndham’s Theatre « Life in the Cheap Seats - Webcowgirl’s London theatre reviews Says:

    […] … I’m not going to. And you know why? Because the Midsummer Night’s Dream I saw last week at the Southwark Playhouse smoked this production’s ass. Maybe it’s […]

  5. JimTheFoolTheActionHero Says:

    Yeah, I went to see Jon Man’s production with my aunt,
    I think I agree with pretty much everything you say here, except that the production set the play in samurai Japan rather than Greece, and Shakespeare wasn’t strictly attempting to imitate Greek theatre with Midsummer, cos he didn’t use the three thingies by aristotle so not sure what you mean by the second added bit
    Still, I agree with everything else you say!

    Bye!

  6. London Christmas Theater schedule (my theater schedule for December 2009) « Life in the Cheap Seats – Webcowgirl’s London theatre reviews Says:

    […] Playhouse’s version, in part because of good feelings toward their productions (thanks to the Midsummer I saw there in February) but also because of the novelty of the walkabout […]

  7. Best London theater, 2009 « Life in the Cheap Seats – Webcowgirl’s London theatre reviews Says:

    […] of the year: the Southwark Playhouse. A Midsummer Night’s Dream at this small and atmospheric venue blew me away; the shows I’ve seen since have been of […]

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