What a week! I’ve been to see A Chorus Line and the Globe’s all-day Henry VI-athon, but what I want to write about is the Tooting Arts Club’s Midsummer Night’s Dream. Theater in the non-ritzy, southern end of zone three is hard to come by, and it was Tara Arts only until Tooting Arts Club came on the scene. Their Barbarians blew me out of the water, and I was excited to see they were doing A Midsummer Night’s Dream this year. I was promised (somewhere!) it would be set in modern Tooting, and I was curious how they would handle it – it’s a very exciting neighborhood but hardly a Grecian glen in the making.
As it turns out, this Midsummer was very traditional in terms of the dialogue, but took wild liberties with the sets and costumes. We were supposedly at Tooting Common (actually a darned shame there is no outdoor Shakespeare festival there!), as indicated by Astroturf, a “Lido” sign, and some helpfully scattered garbage; but, as crammed into the auto repair shop that is the main theater at the Tooting Arts Club, Titania’s bower wound up being a redecorated sink/handwashing area (a later version of the bower is hidden behind a rolling garage door – a nice touch). The costumes were fully outrageous, both clearly done on a budget and yet highly inventive. Both Peaseblossom and Mustardseed had indicative elements strapped on a la codpiece (never seen a sack of frozen peas used that way before!), while the Athenian lovers wore school uniforms.
What was really great about the costume design (aside from the toy electric guitar) was the way the clear cut differences between each of the groups meant we had no problems distinguishing between player, royalty, Athenian, and fairy; in fact, it took me some time before I realized that the whole show was being done with about seven actors in total. This is made a joke at the very end, when King Theseus has to shed his robes in order to join the players; but really, it was all done very well. Hard to believe the same person played both sweaty ol’ Bottom and the noble Egeus!
While I had been expecting more references to modern Tooting life, what I did NOT expect (and appreciated more) was a fully realized directing approach that showed ingenuity, imagination, and a real understanding of what makes a play move along well. This found reached its apogee in the Helena/Hermia fight scene (the one with the insults about Hermia’s height), which had Lysander and Demetrius grappling in real mud. Yes, the chicken dance at the very end of the show was amusing, but seeing Hermia fling the men around as if she was in a martial arts flick broke my funnybone. It was like The Matrix as done by the Three Stooges. I have never in my life laughed so hard while watching Shakespeare – even the Rude Mechanicals (who normally bore me) got the giggles going. (Oh, when Robin Starveling told off Hippolyta, that was SO perfect!)
Overall, while Tooting Arts’ Club’s Midsummer was not what I expected, it was even better than I had hoped, showing not just how flexible Shakespeare can be, but how less can regularly be more. And at £14 a ticket (£9 if you’re a local like me), it’s a screaming deal. Hurray for the summer of Shakespeare! Hurray for the Tooting Arts Club! Hurray for awesome, affordable theater!
(This review is for a performance that took place on Thursday, August 14th, 2013. It continues through September 7th. The theater is accessed via a nearly unnoticeable driveway entrance between two buildings – give yourself extra time to reconnoiter on your way from the Tooting Broadway tube stop.)