A Midsummer Night’s Dream at Chester Storyhouse
Review by Lew Baxter
On first entering the auditorium for this brand new production of Shakespeare’s well loved comedic creation it could be presumed by some that they had stumbled into the wrong room, as the stage is bare and dark apart from a startling red drum kit that sits proudly as though awaiting a rock band, or as if left behind from a late night gig.
However, it is this percussion element that is just one of the many wonderful surprises and inventive touches that – like the audience here – would surely have encouraged even the mighty Bard himself to clap his hands with glee and shriek with delight.
And shrieking is a big part of this show, and not in any adverse way as director Alex Clifton, the artistic director at Chester’s new and fabulously appointed and imaginative Storyhouse cultural hub, embarks on an anarchic, wildly extravagant romp which, with little argument, will be the benchmark for this work from now on.
There are probably not enough superlatives to embrace both the direction and acting but exhilarating and madcap will suffice, for now. The choreography by Rachell Catherall was sensational and its frenetic pace might well have exhausted the players but also rendered the onlookers drained…but well rewarded.
The play kicks off with a thunderous drum solo and the ensuing highly skilled ‘caressing of the skins’ by Josh Savage sets the marker for the whole show as the cast – members of the biggest repertory company in the UK, apart from the National Theatre in London and the RSC – engage with Will Shakespeare’s play within a play in a seemingly rambunctious fashion but clearly within the boundaries of director Clifton’s broad vision, and, phew, they are certainly and extensively far flung.
Essentially, in case you don’t already know, its about four young lovers, and the emotional vexations that fire their furies – stuff that Shakespeare revelled in – and how during a Midsummer night they find themselves within the realms of magic and mystery in an enchanted wood. It incorporates six amateur actors who perform amidst the imagined trees and copses. The place is seemingly thronged with shimmering fairies and nymphs cavorting about as the Fairy King Oberon raves and rants while a kind of elf called Puck who is an impish rogue writ large stirs the pot of intrigue and chaos.
It is obvious that the entire acting troupe – 16 in all – are having a rollicking time and their passion and enthusiasm spills off the stage in waves of high-octane adrenalin fused with mirth. It would be unfair to hail any one of them as stand out because each individual commits their utmost with relish.
Yet, Adam Keast as Bottom is surely in the running for a ‘Super Trouper’ glittering sparkler for the sheer spellbinding nature of his stage presence, and for one of the most hilarious ‘death’ scenes since Albert Finney as Othello in the movie ‘The Dresser’.
And Thomas Richardson is a marvellous, gimlet-eyed Puck, and, of course handles the role of Philostrate with style and presence, while James Weaver as Oberon hurtles about like a feral inmate from ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’.
You can also include in the glad tidings that Natalie Grady as Quince is a knockout, emphasising her Lancashire vowels to tremendous comic effect, her performance as the gangly ‘play’ director is blissful, particularly when she is ‘prompting’ the ‘actors’ by microphone as they mispronounce their words. Glorious.
Indeed, a significant component of the performance is that regional accents are encouraged and exaggerated, although of course Keast’s Welsh accent is not ‘ahem’ regional – we don’t want to foster cross border squabbles.
Everyone involved in this triumphant production, from cast through to production teams, deserves a mention but unfortunately space does not allow – you know who you are and you have delivered a show that, to unashamedly adopt a cliché, is a tour de force. Bravo and congratulations.