Changes in the night

29th April 2005 at 01:00
The events and lessons of 'A Midsummer Night's Dream' make the characters re-evaluate, as Heather Neill reports

A Midsummer Night's Dream The Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford - upon-Avon In rep until October 15 Tel: 0870 609 1110

Gregory Doran directed a charming production of Shakespeare's poem "Venus and Adonis" at the Little Angel Puppet Theatre last year. Now tackling A Midsummer Night's Dream he says that experience taught him some useful lessons.

His Dream features a puppet Changeling Boy, the poor creature who is the excuse for the spat between Oberon and Titania, the fairy king and queen who each claim to own him. Doran says the Changeling Boy, who is later abandoned and forgotten, is crucial: "In our production he is a toddler, which makes it a kind of domestic quarrel, both familiar and removed at the same time".

The Fairies are inspired by Victorian artists, such as Fuseli, Rackham and Richard Durden, "both tiny and huge", an illusion achieved by using both actors and puppets to explore "a deeper erotic quality" alongside the charm. Puck is a hobgoblin, not a cheeky little chap, but "leaden, lumpy and when we first see him, the spirit has gone out of him. He feels left out, replaced by the Changeling Boy in Oberon's favour, but he gets back into it."

Doran's mortal characters wear modern dress, but the production opens with the startling image of Theseus and Hippolyta fighting in full armour. Of course, Theseus says that he has won his bride in battle, but this play-fight suggests a fantasy element to their relationship.

Like all the major characters in the play, these two are changed by events, especially by the effect of the wood. Oberon, "one of Shakespeare's pantheon of jealous characters learns because Titania falls vulnerably in love (with Bottom as an ass) and he pities her and regrets his action". The young lovers grow up over night: "Hermia is a rich girl who has always been loved. When she finds herself hated, she falls back on her own resources.

Helena has fallen into the trap of playing the victim. When she is suddenly loved as much as she could want she has to reassess her true position.

Lysander changes least, but his consciously poetic idea of love is replaced by something deeper and Demetrius's acknowledgement that you own a lover but have to be separate too is very moving."

Nature is a constant theme - there are references to many flowers and to failed harvests - and Doran points out that the midsummer of the title suggests a dangerous time of year rather than one of pleasure: "It was a time when there was access to spirits, the corn would be just getting its beard and if it were wet, the harvest would be ruined. Once, the gods would have been propitiated and some of the old superstitions survived."

The moon, frequently referred to in the play, is a constant presence in the production. Representing Diana, goddess of chastity, it is a reminder of the necessary balance between chastity and lust. Bottom discovers love for the first time with Titania. Doran describes his reappearance to his friends as "definitely post-coital". He is transformed by means of a recognisable ass's head. Look out for the ears: they pivot in a properly asinine manner.

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