Grab bag is also the word for a company led here by a ravishing Lindsay Duncan, doubling as Hippolyta and Titania and absent these shores since her amazing Merteuil in “Les Liaisons Dangereuses” nearly a decade ago; along with the very hot Alex Jennings as Theseus and Oberon; and the lovably hammy Desmond Barrit as Nick Bottom.
As always with the RSC, one is moved to a kind of awe at the technical skill and the mastery of language that are the company’s benchmarks, and as always, one may find oneself in such a state of admiration that one realizes one has missed the play. I missed the play; for all its visual elegance and keen articulation, the production mostly left me cold. “So quick, bright things come to confusion,” as Lysander says.
Not all the actors are very good — what I would give to have seen Emma Fielding’s Hermia that summer at Stratford — and those who are, are good in a way that’s often more admirable than inviting. That’s particularly the case with Jennings and with Barry Lynch, who doubles as Philostrate and Puck: Both have a kind of radiance in the Athens scenes bookending the play that goes harsh and punky in the forest scenes (bare-chested and big-wigged as Puck, Lynch recalls the Cosmo Girl-style photo of Ralph Fiennes that recently graced the cover of Vanity Fair).
Jennings steamrolls a lovely passage like Oberon’s “I know a bank where the wild thyme blows,” draining it of charm as well as poetry.
When the mechanicals gather for the first rehearsal of “Pyramus and Thisbe,” they are more or less in modern dress. One arrives on bicycle, one is wearing an umbrella hat, Quince (John Kane) sports a bowler, there’s a Fair Isle sweater for Flute (Mark Letheren) and a black leather jacket for Bottom. In the forest, doors are apt to pop up out of nowhere.
Ward’s stage and costume designs are gorgeous and a little kinky. Opening and closing scenes at the Duke’s palace in Athens feature blood-red walls, a swing down stage left, and a single door at the back; the production seems a response to Peter Brook’s famously stark white, trapeze-hung “Dream” with this company in ’70.
Jennings wears a robe of almost liquid gold lame, and for Duncan, there’s a slinky scarlet gown trimmed in red ostrich feathers (the play opens with Hippolyta to-and-fro-ing languorously on that swing, another nod to Brook). Chris Parry’s beautiful lighting scheme is the production’s subtlest aspect.
Titania resides in the pillow-lined bowl of a giant overturned umbrella, also red, that, along with a few other umbrellas, is apt to disappear into the flies or drop into view surrounded by a “forest” of gently swaying lights, hanging like golden teardrops. Instead of a fog separating the quartet of quarreling young lovers, there are white shrouds, and they, too, rise up, leaving Helena (Emily Raymond), Hermia (Monica Dolan), Lysander (Daniel Evans) and Demetrius (Kevin Robert Boyle) like so many dangling cocoons.
But with the notable exception of Evans, who has an appealing, feisty impetuousness, the kids are sulky or irritating or both. The pumped-up slapstick throughout would be fine if there were room left for any real hunger or yearning among all these couples. But there isn’t, just as there’s not a twitch of remorse, let alone affection, when Oberon realizes what his trickery has wrought on Titania and sets things right.
Well, at least the eye is always happy, even if the heart yearns for more. Some spacey, New Age music by Ilona Sekacz literally underscores the schizzy nature of the production. When Titania’s fairy entourage comes out to attend Bottom-as-ass, that music starts up and an audience member may be forgiven a sense of deja vu: It could be a scene from “Cats.”