Despite Bottom, the lovers, Oberon and Titania, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” has either no leads or too many. No single character-line drives the action and everyone comes from different worlds. Christopher Oram’s Burning Man/hippy-esque design drenched in Paule Constable’s super-saturated-color lighting create a unifying visual world, but the latest production from director Michael Grandage — the London-to-Broadway regular whose last West End outing was hit Daniel Radcliffe topliner “The Cripple of Inishmaan” — doesn’t cohere dramatically. There’s much warm humor, but the emphasis on sex and sexuality is self-conscious when it should be chaotic. It’s too clean about being dirty.
As Bottom, comically self-aggrandizing David Walliams (BBC TV’s “Little Britain”) leads the production’s most fully realized strand. With complete fidelity to the text, Walliams’s preening Bottom is unusually presented as the partner of Peter Quince (comically fraught Richard Dempsey, as uptight as his neat bow-tie,) the director of the play-with-the-play. This gives a solid reason as to why Bottom is able to get away with murder. That clarity of characterization is the hallmark of Grandage’s deft approach to these amateur theatricals too often partronizingly played as working-class numbskulls. Here, their Pyramus and Thisbe play raises laughs for being so unsophisticatedly vainglorious while also being touching in its consistent sincerity.
Sheridan Smith, who leapt from the small screen to bag Olivier awards two years running, tosses off Shakespearean verse with ease. Her exuberant Titania leads a group of flesh-and-blood fairies who are young, counter-culture pleasure-seekers wearing little but skin, feathers and exotic plumes. Smith has real physical fire, most evident as she cavorts delightedly with Bottom.
Her problem is that her relationships are under-explored due to the casting of her Oberon. Fascinatingly calm and clear in Grandage’s fine production of “The Cripple of Inishmaan” that preceded this, Padraic Delaney’s Oberon has no energy, any potential character lost beneath unmotivated verse-speaking. Since the two double as Hippolyta and Theseus, his lack of power gets the play off to a worryingly sluggish start and means the play’s controlling relationships don’t gel.
Once the walls of Theseus’s sombre palace have risen to reveal the wrecked fairytale forest dominated by a huge, glowing moon, the lovers take wing, especially Katherine Kingsley’s excellent Helena, whose increasingly panicked outrage at the belligerent actions of her erstwhile friends is beautifully plotted and very funny. However, the more the men respond to the havoc caused by Puck (well-grounded, scampering Gavin Fowler), which is made plain by the shedding of their clothes, the more doubts emerge.
Stripping down to close-fitting underwear makes complete comic sense in a play in which otherwise sane characters go mad. But although their six-packs are admirable, the palpable heat of sexual desire is absent. When one of the men distractedly fondles Helena’s hair, you wonder why he isn’t pawing her body.
Grandage raises welcome laughs at Bottom’s delight in his new heterosexual prowess, but although the production’s aesthetic aims for hedonism, the choreography feels too scrupulous. And while it’s amusing to have Oberon and Titania reunite to The Carpenters’ “Touch Me When We’re Dancing,” it’s music that, rightly or wrongly, instantly evokes a sense of kitsch which militates against depth of feeling.
This may be a rare tonal misfire on Grandage’s part but pricing — 25% of the tickets throughout the house cost just £10/$16 — and the presence of audience-friendly Smith and Walliams is likely to dwarf criticism while bringing further new young audiences to his already highly successful five-play West End season.