A Midsummer Night’s Dream

AMI JONES has watched a play, past the wit of critic to say what play it was.

A Midsummer Nights Dream Alex MacKeith Ami Jones andrew room Arts Theatre Cambridge Arts Theatre Charlotte Quinney ellie nunn Harry Carr James Parris kate sagovsky matteo oxley Shakespeare Theatre Will Attenborough

Cambridge Arts Theatre, 21st-25th February, 7.45pm, £15-25

Directed by Kate Sagovsky

[rating: 4/5]

Fate has a funny old way of ordering the articles you choose to publish. Just my luck that after presenting a scathingly elegant argument in praise of my craft, I’m delivered with the hardest review of my short, glittering career.

The play’s aesthetic is stunning. One expects nothing less of the annual Marlowe and their professional director, of course, but Kate Sagovsky and her technical team deserve praise for dreaming up (hur hur) a concept which is unapologetically contemporary while still creative and imaginative. Well – for the most part, but we’ll save the bloodshed for later.

Photos by Sana Ayub

Of the three neatly-separated worlds – lovers, Mechanicals, fairies – the first was the one which really earned the stars at the top of this review. Charlotte Quinney, Will Attenborough, James Parris and Ellie Nunn were an astonishingly adept ensemble as the four young lovers at the heart of the piece.

The sprawling four-way fight that happens at the very middle was beautifully slick and hilarious, with the hands-down-best fourth-wall jokes I’ve ever seen. This alone would have been enough, but it was the fact that Sagovsky managed to tease out the genuine anguish and heartbreak driving the entire scene which pushed the quartet into real greatness.

Ellie Nunn delivered the standout performance of the night, encapsulating all that was good about the production. She did exactly what is demanded of a Shakespearean actor – take lines which have been carelessly brushed over after 400 years of familiarity and press them into life again.

The Mechanicals were instantly charming and receive much kudos from me – making ancient jokes funny again is tough. It was very much hit-and-miss, but the onslaught was so enthusiastically relentless that ultimately the hits had far more impact than the misses.

Alex MacKeith shouldered the epic role of Bottom well, though the character was occasionally sacrificed in favour of trying to fit in more gags – he was at times paradoxically too good a performer to be a plausible Bottom. Indeed, the whole group of them had the knack of carrying things on a bit too long.

Things fell apart, however, whenever the fairies made an appearance. I could have liked a lot of the things Sakovsky tried – the weird physical-movementy thing she attempted in particular could have worked, but there was just too much going on, and frankly the underlying performances weren’t strong enough to support it.

The stark simplicity which made the modernisation of lovers and the Mechanicals work was lost and drowned in incomprehension. I later learned that Sagovsky is largely a movement director, which explained a lot – clearly the actors had rehearsed their arses off doing flips and tricks, but all it really amounted to was distracting amateur acrobatics. And ultimately this detracted from what really mattered and what really needed work – the textual performance.

Mateo Oxley’s Oberon made little to no impact, and his camp wriggling was more giggle-inducing than unsettling or creepy or whatever it was meant to be. Harry Carr also certainly looks like a great Puck, but seemed to be riding on good visual casting alone, which was disappointing.

I’ll venture to say that, at its best, the play contained some of the best theatre this term. I guess in a funny way it’s a tribute to the fantastic disjointedness of the piece that I managed to simultaneously be dazzled and disappointed by it. But the course of true criticism never did run smooth.