A chill spring day in Stratford for the RSC’s launch of its summer comedies season with a new Midsummer Night’s Dream from Gregory Doran. A production to warm the heart? Certainly, for how could any half-competent staging fail to do so, and anything directed by Doran is usually rather better than that. But where so many are constantly beating a path through the Athenian forest, it’s a task of tasks to find anything new to say. On this score he chalks up few points. On the other hand, there’s perhaps some relief that no alien concept has been imposed, no abhorrent substructure excavated, no relevance insisted upon.
A startling beginning will do very well. A snatch of Mendelssohn’s famous music is savagely crunched, immediately banishing any Victorian sentimentality about the piece. On the polished black granite surface of the stage, two masked gladiators are slugging it out in mortal combat. Maybe one came to the wrong play? In a trice, the armour is off revealing Theseus and Hippolyta joking about their bout of prenuptial skirmishing. That was precisely the kind of thing that Isadora Duncan’s brother Raymond and his wife got up to in the early 1900s, all part of the Homeric lifestyle affected by them at their house outside Athens.
Thankfully, there are no further caperings in pursuit of antiquity, but there’s a wryly Greek-colonel-flavour about Miles Richardson’s jackbooted Theseus, and more than a touch of Callas in the looks of Bridgitta Roy’s Hippolyta. Richardson’s enunciation is exemplary, putting across the immortal lines about ‘the lunatic, the lover, and the poet’ as though new minted. Good to see the royal bride-to-be stride off in disgust at her Theseus’s chastising Hermia for romantic disobedience to her father, but the feminist gesture was left as an isolated tantrum.