A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM. The Royal Shakespeare Company. The Barbican
A Midsummer Night's Dream has long been considered a fitting introduction to Shakespeare. It has magic, broad humour that doesn't rely on complicated word-play, young people falling in love, a whole kingdom of fairies and a happy ending. In 1662, Pepys, seeing only the childish side, damned it as "the most insipid and ridiculous play that ever I saw in my life". But in 1999, the RSC's production has had to be vetted for suitability by teachers and, after one primary class was removed by their headteacher earlier this year, the theatre no longer recommends it for children under 10.
The reasons for the shift are two-fold. Modern (post-Freudian) directors enjoy highlighting what is known as the "darker" side of the play: the wood is a place of dream (possibly nightmare), of change, discovery and painful growing up as well as love and magic. And this production glories in the sensual aspects of the plot and characters.
Compared with more conventional interpretations, such as the recent film starring Michelle Pfeiffer and Kevin Kline, with its lush woodland scenes and charming Tuscan village squares, this production, directed by Michael Boyd, is stark.
We begin in Theseus's court in Athens where Theseus is introducing his nervous bride-to-be, Hippolyta. Everyone is buttoned up to the neck in respectable grey coats such as might have come from a high-street chain this season. The weather is wintry, the prevailing morality chilly. Hermia is ordered to obey her father and marry Demetrius rather than Lysander, with whom she is in love, or choose between death and a convent. Hippolyta, the newcomer, looks displeased and sympathetic to young love.
The "mechanicals" enter in less well-fitting grey suits, solemnly performing - rather well - a stamping dance. Peter Quince (Peter Kelly), Scots and pony-tailed, displays an ability to flatter amateur actors worthy of The Archers's Linda Snell. Daniel Ryan's Bottom is eagerness personified - left on his own he gives a touch of Sean Connery and Michael Caine. Then his imaginary arrow becomes real and hits its taret, and the magic starts to take over. A prim, bespectacled lady-in-waiting enters with Philostrate, the court fixer. Soon they are tearing each other's clothes off and are transformed into Peaseblossom (Sirine Saba) and Puck (Aidan McArdle). Red flowers pop up individually from the floor and there is a sense of movement, pleasure and liberation.
Into this world, ruled by Oberon and Titania (Nicholas Jones and Josette Simon, Theseus and Hippolyta's other, unbridled, selves), stumble the four young lovers. Hermia (Catherine Kanter), Lysander (Fergus O'Donnell), Helena (Hermione Gulliford) and Demetrius (Henry Ian Cusick) are a spirited set who end up looking as if they have been pulled "thorough bush, thorough briar" backwards. Their story of muddle and misunderstanding is told with much hilarity, not least because Oberon and Puck take such mischievous advantage of their invisibility.
The comic play-within-the-play is genuinely funny, the "actors" retaining the characters they have already developed with their pettiness and embarrassment. Bottom performs a desperate death scene as Pyramus, compensating for a broken stage dagger by mercilessly hitting and kicking himself to the ground. His ass impersonation, all buck teeth, hairy ears and fuzzy chest, is an excellent foil for Josette Simon's sinuous Titania. Simon combines the human and the fairy, the ethereal and the earthy better than anyone. Her performance is alone worth the ticket price.
The two worlds of the play are so thoroughly intertwined in this production that Puck's final speech is begun by him in the character of Philostrate. And when Hippolyta is prevailed upon by Bottom to dance with him she seems to be half-remembering a dream.
This is a delightful production from which older children and teenagers emerge buzzing with pleasure. Perhaps younger ones would enjoy a more straightforwardly prettified version, but it is, after all, a play about adolescence and about misunderstandings in sexual relationships, and this treatment does justice to its complications. In any event, there have been no further complaints.
Tickets: 0171 638 8891