Garlanded in glitter and dipped in fake tan, director Matthew Dunster’s bold reimagining of Shakespeare’s comedy takes a trip to fairyland via My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding. This Athens is the barren, caravan populated site of a planned shopping development, whose grubby billboard proclaiming a “new shopping experience” looms above the world of the play as a garish symbol of the tarnished dream of capitalism. The instantly recognisable modern day grounding in a patriarchal culture enables an intriguing re-examination of the play’s often underdeveloped gender politics, highlighting the bitter tang of a world in which a father may freely “dispose” of his daughter and a man wins the hand of his wife through “injuries”.
In a striking if not entirely successful move, Dunster’s production is often more of a nightmare than a dream. Hippolyta is trapped in a sinisterly abusive relationship with David Birrell’s strutting thug of a Theseus; a black tracksuit-clad Puck, prowling the stage astride a BMX bike, looks disconcertingly fiend-like; there is an oppressive overload of dry ice. The concept, supported by Jon Bausor’s visually startling design, offers a refreshingly dark interpretation of an all too familiar play, in which love is always underscored by violence. Right from its boisterous opening, this is a muscular, visceral and markedly masculine affair.
As with so many productions, however, this one falls foul of the disconnect between the fairy and human spheres, two realms that are always tricky to reconcile. While the rough, concrete aesthetic of the gypsy camp and its pervading atmosphere of tension inject the play with a surprising shot of testosterone-fuelled energy, the fairy world feels familiar and overwrought by comparison. Just like the frustratingly insubstantial concoctions of the subconscious, this latest Dream offers up the promise of something special but ends up marred by confusion.
*** (3 stars)