Review: A Midsummer Night’s Dream

MATT KILROY is enthralled by the ETG’s sinister production.

ADC Matt Kilroy Max Barton Midsummer Night's Dream Shakespeare Theatre

A Midsummer Night’s Dream (ETG)

12th – 16th January at the ADC Theatre

Directed by Max Barton




William Shakespeare – you’ve got to love the man, haven’t you?  He is the cat’s pyjamas, the top banana, the undisputed don of the theatrical world. If you don’t like him, you’re wrong. Simple as that. Capisce?


But what is it that makes his plays so absolutely irresistible, especially to directors? Set them in space, perform them underwater, cast dinosaurs in the leading roles, forget about the set entirely, even forget about the lines – as long as you’ve got the actors and the vision, it will work. And boy, oh boy, Max Barton’s spectacular production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream has both of these things, in abundance.


Photos: Tim Johns –

His vision is of a dark, otherworldly dystopia. In fascist Athens, the calmly despotic Theseus holds sway, surrounded by his rifle-toting black-and-redshirts with his feisty new queen in shackles. In the ‘junkyard forest’ outside the city, packs of acrobatic fairies are on the prowl – inhaling clouds of druggy smoke piped through a Willy Wonka-style tube, these malevolent, uninhibited creatures frolic and spasm like epileptic X-factor auditionees, ruled by their own feral, sexually charged monarchs, while a malicious, batshit mental Puck struts and cackles. Meanwhile, in between these two worlds stumble the rude mechanicals, moronic convicts trying to put on a play good enough to save their skins. So far so pretentious, I hear you say.


But, the production’s brilliance lies in two key factors. Firstly, it crams this warped world with inventive, often twisted, sometimes even improvised gags that come thicker and faster than an idiot on a motorbike, ingeniously finding the humour in every possible moment. Slapstick jostles with the blackest of comedy, knob jokes and exuberant caricatures sit side by side with dead animals and pseudo-suicides. And it’s glorious.


What really brought these jokes alive was the superb cast. Utterly committed, they switched effortlessly between their roles, pumping each scene full of enthusiasm and energy, and still seemed to be enjoying the show after its lengthy European tour. The slapstick shenanigans of the lovers were a particular highlight, managing to tug at the heartstrings while simultaneously tickling the funny bones. Ellie Kendrick’s Hermia and Ryan O’Sullivan’s Lysander were wonderfully touching and convincing in their portrayal of young love, while Nick Ricketts, playing Demetrius, has a face so comedically talented that it ought to have its own agent. The icing on an already scrumptious cake was Tamara Astor’s Helena, a masterly display of awkwardness, playfulness and steely determination that couldn’t have been any better.


Joey Batey’s charismatic Bottom was excellent (I’m not being a perv, it’s the name of his character) and his comic timing impeccable. He and his fellow mechanicals threatened to steal the show with their sheer good-natured stupidity, whether through Patrick Walshe McBride’s histrionic and hilarious Quince, or Lowri Amies’ mentally impaired Snug. Her gurning was a joy to behold.


Yet the audience was never allowed to forget the production’s bleaker undercurrent, particularly in the gloriously chaotic derangement of the drug-addled fairies.  This relentlessly animated show more than made up for what it may have occasionally lacked in, for example, subtlety, by plunging us into its own unique and mesmerising world, filled with extraordinary characters. Though not necessarily one for Shakespeare purists, it is the kind of driven and uncompromising production which we need more of at Cambridge, free from the complacency which can dog directors of Shakespeare. 


It has been a long time since I have been able to walk out of Shakespeare play and think to myself, ‘You know, I wasn’t bored once’. That, surely, is worthy of the utmost praise.