A Midsummer Night's Dream by William Shakespeare

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BBC Radio 3, 11 September 2011
Recorded entirely on location in the Sussex countryside, Celia de Wolff's production emphasized the importance of personal integrity. Regardless of where they lived - in the Athenian court or in the forest - or who they were (fairies or mortals), the characters had to be true to themselves in order to pursue a happy life.
This was certainly not the case in Theseus's (Nicholas Farrell's) court. As they spoke, the characters' voices echoed sepulchrally, suggesting that they were imprisoned - both physically and emotionally - in high-ceilinged stone buildings. The four lovers (Joseph Timms, Ferdinand Kingsley, Emerald O'Hanrahan, Anna Madeley) delivered their romantic protestations in mechanical tones, as if they had learned them from a courtly love manual. ; They might have loved one another deeply, but could not find words of their own to express their sentiments.
The lovers only found release once they had been cast out into the forest, where little or nothing could be heard except the occasional cracking of a twig. The experience initially proved somewhat frightening but they learned to listen to their inner promptings. Madeley's Helena spoke in shrill tones as she vowed to escape Hermia's (O'Hanrahan's) "curst company" forever and fend for herself (III,iii,342). Although Demetrius was restored to her later on, it was clear that she did not much enjoy the idea. The line "I have found Demetrius like a jewel" (IV,i,190) was spat out, with particular emphasis placed on the final word, making it seem like an insult rather than a compliment. Helena resented Demetrius's presence around her, even though there was little or nothing she could do to get rid of him. Athenian tradition required her to find a marriage partner.
De Wolff contrasted Helena with the fairies, most of whom remained perpetually imprisoned by petty jealousy. Oberon (Toby Stephens) resented Titania's (Lesley Sharp's) love for the "little changeling boy" (II,i,120). Standing uncomfortably close to the microphone he delivered his lines in a hoarse whisper; in the couplet "I might see young Cupid's fiery shaft,/ Quenched in the chaste beams of the wat'ry moon" (II,i,161-2), he emphasized the harsh consonants, and took a short pause after the word "Quenched," emphasizing his desire to subordinate Titania to his patriarchal will. Puck (Freddie Fox) proved a willing accomplice; like Oberon he was at a heart a misogynist objecting to the presence of "the Athenian woman" (Helena) in the forest. Hence he looked forward malevolently to the "sport" of "two at once woo one" (III,ii,119-20), with Demetrius (Kingsley) and Lysander (Timms) vying for Hermia's affections. Puck's nature never changed: at the end of the production he paused between the words "an" and "honest," in the line "as I am an honest puck" (V,ii,9) in an expression of defiance. Now it was the listeners, rather than the mortals, who became the objects for his "sport."
The only characters who sustained their integrity throughout were the Rude Mechanicals, led by a vigorous and enthusiastic Nick Bottom (Roger Allam). The weaver embraced every experience with infectious enthusiasm - even while lying in Titania's arms, he punctuated his speeches with "hee-haws" of delight as Peaseblossom (Jessica Sian) tickled his ears, and Cobweb (Jay Carter) found him the honeybag of a "red-hipped bumble-bee" (IV,i,12-13). Once restored to human form, he exhorted his fellow-Mechanicals to "Make presently at the palace" to perform their play (IV,ii,33). Inspired by his words, they cheered and sang as they packed up their belongings and went on their way. Unlike the mortals or the fairies, they enjoyed one another's company.
The "Pyramus and Thisbe" interlude was played straight, with the Mechanicals taking great care with delivering their lines, however banal they might be. Bottom's death seemed rather noble, as he spoke the line "Now die, die, die, die, die" (V,i,301) in hushed tones, taking a pause between each "die." Despite his lack of acting experience, he tried his level best to give a convincing characterization. The interlude itself was played at some distance from the microphone, allowing De Wolff to concentrate our attention on the audience's responses, which were delivered in the form of asides ("Methinks she should not use a long one for such a Pyramus. I hope she (Thisbe) will be brief" (V,i,311-12)). This strategy underlined how little some of the mortal characters had learned from their experiences in the forest - especially Demetrius and Lysander, both of whom giggled derisively as they watched the performance unfold. By contrast Helena and Hermia did not react at all: we felt rather sorry for both of them. Although they had undergone a process of mental development, they had little to look forward to other than loveless marriages.
Straightforwardly staged, clearly spoken by an excellent cast, with atmospheric music by Stephanie Nunn, this revival vividly underlined the moral message lurking at the heart of Shakespeare's otherwise joyous comedy.