You can do it under a giant silvery moon, in a Bollywood wonderland, in the garden of a country house. You can do it decked in glitter, wearing doublet and hose, in a tracksuit, in a sharp suit. You can sing it, rip the piss out of it, preserve it in aspic or project it on a granular screen on the sunny Southbank. You can do whatever you like to it (and in the 20-odd London productions we’ve seen in the past 12 months, people have) and it’s still A Midsummer Night’s Dream, glistening with great lines and fairy moonshine.
Now, it’s Joe Hill-Gibbins’ turn on the merry-go-round, and he’s alighted on a giant pile of muck. The cast stumble over dark earth, their sordid dirty knees reflected in a huge mirror at the back of the stage. It’s a mirror whose unstinting clarity doesn’t have much in common with his studiedly muddied approach.
Johannes Schutz’s monolithic set design and the uncompromising two-hours-straight-through running time prepare us for a similarly uncompromising experience. We’re set up for a brutal reimagining that pummels the fairy dust out of this most whimsical of plays, pointing to the full horror of living in Athens: an oppressive city state where loving the wrong person results in death, and your only escape is to a forest where you’ll have your emotions manipulated at random by a morally bankrupt sprite.
It turns this comedy into a nightmarish look at love in a patriarchal society – like Caroline Byrne’s tragic (and more successful) feminist take on the more certifiably sexist Taming of the Shrew for The Globe last year. Michael Gould’s baleful Oberon is given new depth as a jealous, abusive manipulator, punishing Titania (an endearingly besotted Anastasia Hille) for cheating on him with Bottom, even though it’s by his own design. The humiliation of her downfall is heightened by Bottom’s transformation into a tumorous creature wrought from support tights – Leo Bill plays it like a charismatic drug dealer turned monstrous by his own wares. Around them, the pairs of lovers scramble and wrestle in the mud, pushing each other into the ground in a desperate bid for sex, not affection. And the narcissism that underpins romantic obsession is heightened by the way they retreat to the back of the stage to tongue-kiss the mirror, steaming it up with one-sided moisture.
But there’s still something a little timid, a little conventional about this nightmare – and the cast don’t always seem on board with Hill-Gibbins’ clouded vision. Some of the violence is more playful-rugby-tackle than post-pub-punch-up, and Bottom kisses Titania’s knee, rather than something higher up. And the unseen, virginity-obsessed, patriarchal world that would punish all this sexual transgression is left invisible: instead, all-powerful Theseus ends as a ranting, confused Dad.
Hill-Gibbins has a penchant for gleeful grotesques, and he does them brilliantly. His 2012 staging of The Changeling made the 1622 play wondrously foul, scattering the stage with a malodorous litter of dog food and jelly, and his Beauty Queen of Leenane was a hilariously nasty, porridge-dense take on an Irish gothic. So it like felt the proof of this Midsummer pudding was the play-within-a-play – and it fell surprisingly flat.
The mechanicals mumble and struggle their way through it like they’re reliving a school play in a nightmare. Without either full horror or riotous humour at this play’s climax, it feels like everyone sort of throws their hands up at the task of tying it all together, with an ending that’s the Shakespearean equivalent of the caucus race in Alice in Wonderland – everyone runs around in circles, then it stops.
Its surges of intense physical energy, strong performances and offbeat touches mean that this still is an enjoyable watch, despite its frustrations. But then, it’s a Midsummer Night’s Dream – you can do what you like with it.