Robert Tanitch reviews A Midsummer Night’s Dream at Barbican, London EC2
The South African Handspring Company made their name in the UK with one of the most brilliant and memorable productions of modern times. I am speaking of War Horse, which premiered at the National Theatre and is still running in the West End. If you have not seen War Horse, you must; and please do take a teenager with you.
Handspring now turn their attention to Shakespeare’s most famous comedy. The puppeteers, as in Japanese puppetry, remain totally visible. Oberon is just a huge mask and a huge hand. The forest is created by planks carried by the whole company. Bottom is normally transformed into an ass. Here he is transformed into a huge bottom on a bicycle trolley contraption. The theatre was filled with schoolchildren. The cruder it got the better they liked it.
Puck, the merry wanderer of the night, a shrewd and knavish sprite, used to be acted by actresses in the 19th century. It is only in modern times he has been acted by men. 15-year-old Mickey Rooney was cast as Puck in the 1935 Max Reinhardt Hollywood film.
I have seen Puck played as a panting mongrel, a commedia dell’arte acrobat, an aged Eros, a horrible schoolboy, a French contortionist, a sexy leprechaun, a Belfast urchin, a Pulman porter, a giddy goat, a moustached genie with a Mohican haircut, a middle-aged satyr and as a bloke, with a hairy chest, who was wearing a tutu and brightly coloured stockings.
However, this must be the first time he has been played by a lot of junk (oil can, basket, etc) and three puppeteers. It doesn’t work. Puck is no longer a comprehensible character. Tom Morris’s production has some funny moments, but it does not do justice to Shakespeare’s play.
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