Journey between states

23rd May 2003 at 01:00
A Midsummer Night's Dream. By William Shakespeare. Bristol Old Vic.

Fairy magic and theatrical havoc expose the radical anarchist in Shakespeare, says Aleks Sierz.

One of Shakespeare's best-loved plays, A Midsummer Night's Dream may have been originally written for a lavish aristocratic wedding, because its form suggests that of a celebratory masque. It features the heroic characters of monster-slayer Theseus and Amazon archer-queen Hippolyta and ends in a double marriage and festivities.

The play concerns three worlds: the lovers are two Athenian couples - Lysander and Hermia; Demetrius and Helena - who quarrel in an enchanted wood; the fairies, led by Oberon - with Puck - and Titania, cause havoc with love potions; and the "rude mechanicals", led by Bottom, are commoners trying to organise a play for the court of Theseus and Hippolyta.

Director David Farr says: "On one level, the play is a homage to theatre, and to its power to upset hierarchies, then to bring about harmony again."

His set and costumes are "strictly Victorian, because it is a world that on the surface is extremely ordered but which suppresses a great deal of passion. The play goes on a journey from a state of order to a state of chaos to a state of pleasure."

Shakespeare "is fascinating because he is both deeply conservative and a radical anarchist". He "confounds our expectations about our ability to control our lives, and suggests that what we need is a good dose of fairy magic to show the true anarchy and wildness of our desires". So, in a famous scene, Titania falls in love with Bottom, who is wearing an ass's head. Similarly, Farr's two couples "are very young" and their "strong sense of their own self-importance" gets a few knocks when the fairies'

love potions turn their feelings upside down. "The lovers' confusion is both comic and a bit dark. They are complacent aristocrats who are put through desperate confusion, and discover the joyous but dangerous sense that human identity is up for grabs."

Young audiences will appreciate the play's main theme - "the course of true love never did run smooth" - and Farr hopes his production will "marry real verbal clarity (Shakespeare doesn't have to be difficult) with real visual pleasure - it should be a wonderfully theatrical evening."

Another version of the play, directed by actor Michael Pennington, runs in rep at the Open Air Theatre in London's Regent's Park, from June 9 to September 6. This production has a strong Mediterranean flavour, and stars Issy van Randwyck as Titania.

Until June 7. Education events include workshops, work for sixth-formers, story-telling for under-fives and a session for adults on speaking verse.

Tel: education department: 0117 949 3993 box office: 0117 987 7877 Open Air Theatre box office: 020 7486 2431

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