Magazine article The Spectator

Dream On

Magazine article The Spectator

Dream On

Article excerpt

A Midsummer Night's Dream (Almeida)

Nine (Donmar Warehouse)

After a self-imposed absence of ten years from British drama, Jonathan Miller returns to the Almeida with a staging of A Midsummer Night's Dream which is as courageous as it is sometimes foolhardy. His setting is somewhere, I would guess, in the late 1920s: points of reference would seem to be P.G. Wodehouse, Noel Coward and the kind of house-party where Agatha Christie or Dorothy L. Sayers would have had at least one of the guests murdered at the outset.

I have no objection in principle to such updating: the best As You Like It I ever saw was conceived for the Regent's Park Open Air Theatre by the actress Maria Aitken as one of those home movies which the aristocracy were for ever making for their own amateur delights 60 years ago. But the problem with this Dream is that it cannot be a sustained weekend party: something very odd is going on in the woods, and, though both James Bridie and J.M. Barrie managed to write hit plays about weird goings-on during country-house weekends of the period, the Shakespearean magic is here defeated by clunkingly necessary rewrites, such as having Helena make her exit hailing a taxi.

Like the celebrated Mermaid Henry V which opened with the Chorus announcing `This is a play about war', only to have someone in the audience shout back `Wrong!' at the start of three hours of the all-military version, Miller's is a brilliant idea which goes horribly wrong somewhere around half-time. The country house-party conceit works splendidly for as long as we are with Theseus (a world-weary Robert Swann) and Hippolyta (Angela Downe looking as if she's had a tough day at the Harrods sale), but falls apart once we have to go into the woods, despite Jason Watkins's irritable manservant of a Puck and Peter Bayliss as a vaudevillian Bottom.

Question: why is a flawed musical often so much more interesting to revive and discuss than one which is perfect in every way? As those who still meet for annual reunion dinners to discuss the nine performances of Sondheim's Anyone Can Whistle on Broadway 30 years ago will testify, it's the musicals you think you'd better forget which linger in the mind. Another such is Maury Yeston's Nine, having its London premiere some 15 years after it achieved critical if not tremendous commercial acclaim in New York. …

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