A delightful dip in the Shakespearean pool
If you follow the path through Eastville Park, the course of true love will take you to a derelict, open-air Victorian pool finally waking after a long sleep and filling not with water, but with wonder and delight as the setting for Insane Root’s latest production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
From vaults to graveyards, crypts to caves, Insane Root specialise in seeing the potential of unexpected spaces to elucidate Shakespearean and other classic texts: placing their 2017 adaptation of The Tempest in St John on the Wall’s Crypt perfectly captured the elegiac longing of the ageing Prospero, and as the star-cross’d lovers in their open-air production of Romeo and Juliet fell to their tragic fates, so did the cloak of night fall over the players and audience in this very pool. It’s a few years since Insane Root last laid their scene at Eastville Park, and while the pool doesn’t cast a spell as potent or perfectly plotted for Midsummer as it did Romeo and Juliet, it is – with a little sprinkle of Puck’s fairy dust and Edmund McKay’s playful lighting – an opportune Athenian woodland for spirited fairies, lost lovers, and crafty thespians alike.
The foliage around the pool is a natural ‘palace wood’, the drained pool floor a perfect stage, and the steps around the edge a fitting, if solid, place to watch the action unfold. Dressed in the earthy palette of Katy Hoste’s designs, the talented cast of nine actors open with a song from associate Ellie Showering. Their distinctive choral work, which also scores all of Insane Root’s previous adaptations with lyrics skilfully drawn from the text itself, lulls us with soft lilts into the fantasy world of the play and fixes us there with Dan Pollard’s echoing sound design.
The different worlds and interwoven plots are part of the difficulty in adapting this deceptively straight-forward play. The fighting lovers, vengeful fairies, and disastrous group of artisans-turned-actors are grounds for farce, and Hannah Drake’s playful direction does find all the lightness and laughter, but there’s also darkness to explore. Theseus ‘woo’d’ the warrior Hippolyta with his ‘sword’ and founded their nuptials on violence, and that violence is echoed in Egeus’s fury that his ‘fair’ daughter Hermia – a fierce Lily Donovan – will not accept her fate as Demetrius’s wife. The production faintly traces this, as Norma Butikofer’s Hippolyta is strong-willed and weaponed, and, under Kev McCurdy’s fight direction, outwits Wela Mbusi’s stately Theseus with a swipe of her wooden lance, while gender-swapping Esmée Cook’s proud Lysander adds a frightening prejudice to Egeus’s scorn. Dualling the parts of Theseus/Oberon and Hippolyta/Titania also plays into the deeper layers of the play, with the fairies’ tricks and deceptions a fantastical foil to the suppressed tension of Theseus and Hippolyta.
Although, as Theseus declares in the opening scene, ‘the pale companion is not for our pomp’, and it’s in the fun and frivolity that this production truly awakes. There’s a wonderfully entertaining turn from Euan Shanahan as Puck, playing the sprite with all the swagger of a drunk festivalgoer and introduced with a swig of lager and a loud eructation, and Lizzie Crarer is effervescent as the desperately earnest and devoted Helena, delivering every speech with astounding lucidity. And every scene featuring the Mechanicals, captained by Gareth Warren’s luckless Quince who can scarcely do up the fastenings on his natty cardigan let alone lead his cast of tinkers, tailors, and supposed players, is a delight, particularly the farcical play-within-a-play where Alexander Mushore’s Flute delivers his final lines as the prancing Thisbe so delicately that if this were Juliet saying ‘adieu’ you wouldn’t find a dry eye in the pool. And lastly, though definitely not least, Byron Mondahl’s Bottom exudes all the delusions of grandeur – and occasionally, the vocal pitch – of an operatic soprano, delighting in Titania and the fairies’ adoration without a lick of wit.
So, though the full depths of the play don’t always surface, this playful production, with Insane Root’s unparalleled eye for space and appreciation of Shakespeare’s text, is still a delightful dip in the Shakespearean pool.