A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Arundel and Ladbroke Gardens, London)

A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Arundel and Ladbroke Gardens, London W11)

There’s mischief in the woods – well, in London squares at least – thanks to a magical al fresco production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream playing around some of London’s private garden squares over the summer.

Shakespeare in the Squares is a company that stages outdoor productions of Shakespeare (As You Like It, Romeo and Juliet and Much Ado About Nothing over the past three years) with a different venue each night. Reviewers were invited to the night at Arundel and Ladbroke Gardens in Notting Hill, but other venues include Paddington Square Gardens, Cleveland Gardens and St Peter’s Square.

It’s a down to earth version that could hardly be more different to that currently being played out on a large scale at the Bridge Theatre and the reimagined version at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre. Here judicious editing, lively and likeable performances and astute direction combine to create something accessible for those new to the Bard and fresh for those who know the text backwards.

The company itself has a travelling circus feel and this is especially evident in this production with the forest fairy characters in particular looking as though they have stepped out of a P.T.Barnum show, including Oberon as a Ringmaster, Titania as a gipsy fortune teller, and a Puck dressed in basque, sequins and shiny boots.

Romantic songs and music hall ditties place the action firmly in 1920s Britain, with a sombre post-war atmosphere punctured by the colour, magic and freedom of the forest, which manages to represent both pre-battle innocence and an illusory optimism.

This is Shakespeare stripped back, with a running time of just over two hours, most of the fairies removed, and a lot of prudent slicing – though the abrupt cut at the end of Act 5 forbids the luxury of an enchanted epilogue for the noble older generation  or the idealistic young lovers, which might be a shade too harsh.

As with the Nicholas Hytner production on the South Bank there is an element of gender-swapping , most notably and successfully in the shape of Jodie Jacobs’ Bottom, a rude and raucous mechanical with ambitions to be the next Kate Carney or original Ida Barr. Jacobs is one of those compelling performers who turns all her roles into something golden and that is certainly the case with her self-important weaver, the epitome of the enthusiastic amateur thespian.

James Tobin is wicked in his portrayal of the sprite Puck, caring little for the authority of the Fairy King, and regularly interacting with an appreciative audience. His is a comic turn that one suspects would not be at all of place at a Royal Vauxhall Tavern cabaret night.

Doubling up as Hippolyta and Titania is a striking Sioned Jones. Her Amazon Queen is more like a no nonsense adventuress in the mould of Freya Stark and you half expect her to dash into the forest, leap onto the translated Bottom and take a journey of exploration through the Middle East. Her Titania is a Sybil who is not only enamoured of an ass, but who one feels may just turn to the audience and offer a spell of crystal-gazing if anyone would cross her palm with silver.

Paul Giddings is a tough Duke Theseus, who comes across as someone maybe bruised by World War I experiences and struggling to return to normal life. He doubles as an Oberon very much in control of the carnival and also appears as the long-suffering Peter Quince, a director on the edge especially with the motley group of actors with whom he is forced to work.

The four actors playing the lovers also double as members of the amateur acting troupe and each succeeds brilliantly in both. As the lovers these are young people who probably just missed fighting in the war and have an appetite and enthusiasm for independence, scratching at received convention like an itch. As the labourers turned performers for one magical night of festivities, they clutch at a golden age of entertainment, keen to bring smiles and laughter to a depressed nation.

David Leopold’s Lysander is a Jack the Lad, always spoiling for a fight (there’s a great moment when he reaches for a non-existent sword on his belt with a disappointed “Oh!”); it is no surprise that he and Gemma Barnett’s gutsy Hermia are so well-matched. As Demetrius Riad Richie is more the ex public schoolboy, shifting his attentions easily between the two women, finally winning Hannah Sinclair Robinson’s spirited Helena.

Those familiar with the play will surely be pleased that in this production the often tiresome antics of the lovers in the forest are so light-hearted and the performance of the story of Pyramus and Thisbe at the wedding is genuinely sparkling and funny.

Designer Emily Stuart creates exactly the right mood on a set that resembles part of a travelling circus or funfair, and the actors manage some extraordinarily quick costume changes from the music hall eccentricity to the more serious court attire.

Director Tatty Hennessy ensures that this A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a truly enchanted evening, with even the darker edges to the drama consumed by the over-riding carnivalesque atmosphere in the good old summertime.

This production gives us pop-up Shakespeare at its very best – sweet Dreams are made of this.

David Guest

Image, James Miller

[Runs until July 11th at various London squares, see]

A version of this review originally appeared on The Reviews Hub