Tucked away just off of Clifford Street, Friargate Theatre played the perfect host to Well-Fangled Theatre’s adaption of A Midsummer Night’s Dream yesterday evening. The liminality of the little playhouse reflected the setting of Shakespeare’s timeless comedy, fantastically interpreted by director Mark France and expertly taken on by a universally talented cast.
Taking a seat in the audience first involved passing through the actors already on stage, warming up for their performance. From the off, then, the audience was aware that this was simply a play, much as later on, watching Bottom and his troupe of fellows performing the tragedy of Pyramus and Thisbe. The acknowledgement of this separation between actor and character continued throughout the play – not just in the multi-role nature of a small cast, but in frequent, deliberate breaks in character. These were not the results of a poorly put together piece, however; much to the contrary, these clever breaks and asides were an ingenious inclusion designed to amuse and engage the audience, to great success.
The production promotes itself on the ‘gender-bending’ nature of the show; much like the careful play with the concept of character, the use of gender swap in France’s adaptation was cleverly and tastefully handled. Where in some cases the gender swap was not commented on – as in Patricia Jones’ portrayal of Egeus, Hermia’s father – in others, the swap became fundamental to alterations in the plot. Under Claire Morley, Lysander – Hermia’s lover – becomes Lysandra, an insightful twist that presents a new possible cause for Hermia’s father’s disapproval and their need to flee from Athenian law. France and his cast do well, however, not to labour the point of this relationship: it is a clever and interesting aspect of the adaption, but does not detract from the other storylines and actors – a difficult line to toe, but here, tastefully and well done, with great credit both to Morley and her partner, Hattie Patten-Chatfield (Hermia).
Jamie McKeller’s Demetrius and Amy Fincham’s Helena were arguably the most compelling duo, however – though spending most of the play at odds with and in flight of each other, their comic timing and delightful mockery brought their discord to light, in the most witty engagement I have seen to date in adaptations of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. McKeller’s disparaging attitude in all his characters – particularly Demetrius and Peter Quince – enabled the most amusing and entertaining aspects of the show. His mockery of the typical dramatics of Elizabethan theatre (both within and without character) was indicative of an ironic knowingness of which the Bard himself would have been proud.
Fincham shone through in her animalistic, twitchy movements of the fairy Mustardseed, where, alongside Anna Rose James’ Puck, the feel for the sinister otherworldly was keenly felt. James’ mischief-maker was a highlight of the performance, bringing frequent and brilliant moments of comic hilarity, particularly in her interactions with Josie Campbell’s Oberon. Here, the fairy king and his dutiful servant transformed more into a mother-daughter bond, forged by mischief and magic.
Above all, credit must go the design work of Simon Jarvis. The minimal set, inscribed with the casts name above the stations hosting their costume changes (all, it must be noted, made of cardboard), appeared as dressing rooms – again, reinforcing the audience’s awareness of the show as simply a performance. Most impressive were the intricate wire glasses and head masks adorned by the actors in their roles as fairies, and Jones’ Bottom when transformed into a donkey. The transition from mortals in basic cardboard to the magical in silvery, intricate designs helped to distinguish not only between characters, but also highlighted both late 16th century and enduring contemporary attitudes towards fairies and the mythical. France and Jarvis’ collaboration in this matter helped to create a beautifully subtle yet thought provoking ensemble of design.
Well-Fangled Theatre’s adaptation A Midsummer Night’s Dream was one of the most enjoyable and intuitive creations that this reviewer – and avid Shakespeare lover – has seen to date. Where divulging from the typical, the work of France served only to enhance the well-loved play, aided by a wonderfully talented cast. I look forward to seeing what new magic the cast and crew of Well-Fangled Theatre can next bring to York.