It’s faint praise, but it must be reported that this production from the Royal Shakespeare Co. is by no means as dire as its devastating London reviews would suggest. (“Miserably undercast, grotesquely overdesigned, sloppily directed,” to quote just one.) Since opening in Stratford-upon-Avon in February, the production has toured extensively; maybe it’s in better shape now, as its tour culminated in New Haven, than it was when first unveiled. Nevertheless, many elements are unlovable, primarily the production’s adherence to the tiresome cult of the uglies, in which directors and designers go out of their way to make productions look as unappetizing as possible.
Here, yet again, the set is basically black, the reverse of Peter Brook’s famous white “Dream.” It’s a black box relieved by splashes of white and decorated by an ever-increasing number of huge flies. The no-color scheme continues in costumes of black, white and dirty-gray. Some are contemporary, right down to the underwear revealed on the four young lovers as well as on Bottom (Darrell D’Silva) as Titania (Yolanda Vazquez), in a slightly seedy black-and-glitter evening gown, strips him of his clothing in a sexual frenzy. Other garb is suggestive of ancient Greece. None is flattering.
The performances start out well vocally with Peter Lindford’s clear, clean, likeable Theseus; Lindford is also the understudy of Tim McMullan, who plays Oberon’s understudy and suggests that he’d be preferable to McMullan, who makes little impression other than looking like a rock promoter. Though there’s no great Shakespearean acting in evidence, most of the cast projects the text with meaning and personality. Gabrielle Jourdan is particularly winning as Hermia.
As for all that black and grayness (the fairies, in black with queasy-green hair, look like Macbeth’s witches), it suggests a deliberate anti-beauty stance on the part of director Richard Jones and his designers. There’s even an actor dressed as a threatening black tree with tangled rootlike branches. But the production is never actually scary, so it can’t really be termed a nightmare rather than a dream.
The workmen-players who perform the Pyramus and Thisby wedding entertainment are introduced as if they’re on their way home from work by train, electric-light poles whizzing by the window. They’re a nicely differentiated bunch led by D’Silva’s born-ham Bottom, lank hair over his forehead. Their over-the-top Victorian melodrama reading of the play-within-the-play actually is amusing, not least because of D’Silva’s histrionics and Dale Rapley as an elegantly frock-coated Victorian lion with a paper-curl mane.
A bare-chested young man rather than boy as Puck, Dominic Cooper has physical fun sweeping characters offstage at the start and end of the play and dashing around in between, at one point juggling a globe of the world on his feet.
The production ends with Puck’s shadow painted large across a front drop, just prior to which another front drop reveals the three sets of lovers in bed with their rightful partners. The Hermia-Helena-Lysander-Demetrius shenanigans are just plain knock-down, drag-out.
The most accomplished production elements is Jonathan Dove’s music, which is tinkled and tooted on trumpet, harp, double bass, percussion and keyboard. It introduces an element of magic to a production that has almost none to offer elsewhere.
This is the fourth year in a row the RSC has played New Haven’s fest. Only once has it truly distinguished itself, with Antony Sher’s “Macbeth” in 2000. Still, this “Dream” is better than some of its other offerings.