When’s the last time you saw “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and came away loving the lovers? That is perhaps the singular achievement of Jonathan Miller’s enjoyably perverse Almeida production of this comedy, which doesn’t quite resemble any staging of it you’re likely to have seen. To start with, the so-called “fairies” look no different from the royals: The Mechanicals apart, the stage is full of tuxedoed swells circa 1930 speaking with clipped, plummy accents and sipping champagne, and attended to by sprites – here, ashtray-bearing servants – who might have stepped out of “Upstairs, Downstairs.”
The set by the Brothers Quay doesn’t differentiate between the worlds of the court and the woods. The entire action takes place on a narrow strip at the front of the stage behind which are some translucent, frosted panels suggesting a barely visible, dusky labyrinth. The multiple doors allow the play its farcical impetus without in any way suggesting the transformation implicit in Anthony Ward’s set for last season’s touring Royal Shakespeare Company version of the same play; indeed, this must be the least Freudian “Dream” in recent times.
If one sees immediately what Miller’s staging is not, what, then, is it? On one level, of course, it’s a sustained act of directorial trickery on a par with Miller’s “Rigoletto” set among the Little Italy Mafiosi or his “Cosi Fan Tutte” dressed by Armani.
But if Miller were standing Shakespeare’s play on its head only because he could, the purpose of the enterprise would be entirely self-defeating. Instead, he releases a more constant current of humor than most “Dreams” have of late, alongside a potent reassessment of the imaginative value of theater. After all, as Puck’s final soliloquy makes clear, the “dream” is a projection of the audience in any case, so why can’t the fairies be as well?
True, there are moments when Shakespeare’s language violates the conception. It’s difficult for Oberon (Norman Rodway) to insist to Puck (Jason Watkins), “We are spirits of another sort” when they so palpably are not. The same character’s grimace on “I know a bank where the wild thyme blows” doesn’t exactly awaken the romance of the text. Later, announcing that “it’s almost fairy time,” Theseus (Robert Swann) sounds like a kindly old man trying to coddle some unseen grandchildren. At that instance, and others, one feels Miller undercutting the play, not re-evaluating it.
Mostly, though, the conceit is fully worked out, and the “Private Lives” tone works wonders with the lovers. Instead of the usual anonymous quartet, each is fully individualized, starting with a tall, tweedy Lysander from Angus Wright, whose priceless gawkiness – the actor suggests an Anglicized Jimmy Stewart as dressed by Saville Row – turns vicious once he sets his amorous sights on Helena (Doon Mackichan, reprising the aggrieved nasality she adopted for her Princess Diana several seasons ago in “The Queen and I”).
Struggling to assert her dignity after being called a “puppet,” Sylvestra le Touzel’s Hermia is a hilariously indignant glamour-puss, especially when placed alongside the portly, easily exasperated Demetrius of Jonathan Coy – “Videlicet, Latin,” he explains, the Eton-educated pedant to the last.
The older couples are just as fresh. Angela Down’s Hippolyta makes clear that she’s having none of her partner’s insistence on “nightly revels”; she storms offstage at the suggestion, leaving Swann’s puffed-up, rifle-wielding Theseus to reprise “Underneath the Arches,” the period song with which the Mechanicals have minutes before taken their leave. (Other music incorporated into the evening includes “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” and an unexpected “Leaning on a Lamppost” from Peter Bayliss’ ripely narcissistic Bottom.) Angela Thorne’s Titania, in turn, is a jaded, boa-wearing sophisticate who utters a knowing laugh on “What visions have I seen?” as she stirs, only to discover herself in Bottom’s embrace.
Her same question might well be asked in dismay by audiences expecting from this play fleet-footed goblins and royal fairies sprinkled in stardust: Watkins’ deadpan cockney Puck, urging upon us an intermission sandwich, couldn’t be less airy. I prefer to regard the evening as a temperate reading of a sometimes intemperate text, an older man’s thoughts on a young man’s play. However one describes it, Miller’s staging has its own neat logic. It’s a “Dream” for dreamers who long ago woke up.