(Iris Theatre, St Paul’s Church, Covent Garden, 2 July – 6 August)
Certain plays are made to be performed outside, and the garden play par excellence is A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Completely by chance, I spotted the banner for Iris Theatre’s current production in the gardens of St Paul’s Church, Covent Garden. It sounded like a lovely way to start off the week and, since the weather promised to be fine, I roped in a colleague to come along with me.
It was the most delightful and exuberant production I’ve seen for years: the perfect way to spend a balmy summer’s evening. As it’s a promenade performance, sitting on the ground is involved, so I’d recommend bringing something to sit on. There’s no point in being precious about choosing your spot, because after twenty minutes or so the actors will suddenly stop, look around and say, ‘Well come on, follow me!’ Then you all scramble off, down paths (or through flowerbeds as the mood and sense of urgency takes you), up steps and into the next little vignette. The scene alternates between the church steps, a fairy bower misty with ethereal smoke, a little glade beneath some trees, and for the final scenes, the church interior itself where smoke and subtle lighting create a magical atmosphere. The small but amazingly versatile cast doubles up roles, with some very quick costume changes. I should warn you that volunteers are recruited from the audience for the roles of Lion and Wall in the rude mechanicals’ play. I dread being picked out of the crowd for this sort of thing, but the actors were patient and eventually two enterprising gentlemen volunteered. By all appearances they had a great time and earned riotous applause for their cameos.
Two aspects of the production really stood out for me. First, the cast are musically very talented and so there are numerous interludes with guitars, violins, trumpets and songs, to fill the time while the audience hares from one part of the garden to the next. Second, the physicality of the fairy-acting was absolutely astounding. The actors changed their entire way of moving, and contorted themselves into various positions – their movements became genuinely otherworldly as they jumped about or crept along the ground, snuffling, hissing and scrabbling around. Their costumes were trimmed with flowers garlands, fabric leaves and rags, really giving a sense that these were creatures of the forest. All the actors were very good, but the characters that stood out for me were Puck, Mustardseed, Oberon and Bottom.
As Puck, David Hywel Baynes darted and skittered round the stage, gleeful and calculating by turns, stealing every scene he was in. With tattoos swirling down his arms, dressed in rags, leaves and gauzes, he looked like one of Peter Pan’s Lost Boys who’d fallen in with the wrong crowd. His real talent is shown by the gulf between his frenzied Puck and his measured, courtly Theseus – so different that I didn’t initially realise the same actor was playing both. Emily Tucker was delightful as Mustardseed, a sprightly fairy in every sense of the word, springing around the stage and bubbling over with mischief, emitting occasional squeaks and coos. She doubles up as Hippolyta and once again the transformation is remarkable: as the duchess she is calm, elegant and full of poise.
Playing Oberon, Peter Manchester combines power with sympathy; and he’s very good on the guitar. He opened the second half by serenading the audience in the ‘wooded glade’, flirting shamelessly with a number of the girls (and abruptly sitting down next to me on one of the benches halfway through his song). His Oberon is appealing, rather than distant and severe, and his plan to bring Helena and Lysander together with the love-potion is well-intentioned. He looks genuinely distressed when he sees the squabbling lovers and realises it has all gone wrong.
Finally, there is Bottom. The character gains extra importance in this production because everything is presented as his dream. The endearing Matthew Mellalieu ad-libbed freely with the audience, jollied us along and shepherded us from place to place – natural and easy in everything. The final scene, after he has woken from his ‘dream’, is very beautiful: disorientated by his surroundings, he is unexpectedly paid a final, magical visit by a silent Oberon, Titiania and their court, wreathed in smoke.
After this surfeit of enchantment, brimming with happiness, you stumble out of the church to find the garden all bedecked with twinkling fairy lights that weren’t there when you went in, and which flank your path as you drift off to get the bus or the Tube. I was grinning like a Cheshire cat all the way home.