There’s a darkness on the edge of town. A place of misrule and disruptive magic that in Shakespeare’s day incited dark fears and dreams of wild abandon. The Everyman production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, seen on the penultimate night of its successful run, helped me appreciate for the first time the darker side of Shakespeare’s timeless comedy.

Cynthia Erivo as Puck in A Midsummer Night's Dream
Cynthia Erivo as Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Nick Bagnall’s first production as the Everyman’s new associate director set aside midsummer frolics, romantic woodland glades and fairy dells in order to explores the play’s darker inner spirit. Of course, it’s impossible, such is Shakespeare’s genius, to ignore the light and the laughter, and this production had the audience laughing ’till the tears flowed.

And we fairies, that do run
By the triple Hecate’s team
From the presence of the sun,
Following darkness like a dream,
Now are frolic.

A Midsummer Night's Dream. Directed by Nick Bagnall. Liverpool Everyman Theatre
Puck descends in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, directed by Nick Bagnall

From the moment that Cynthia Erivo’s Puck descends in top hat and tails, dangling upside down on a trapeze in an echo of the famous Peter Brook production, I was gripped.  But there the parallels end: instead of a brilliant white stage and psychedelic-coloured feathers and wind pipes, designer Ashley Martin-Davis turns the Everyman stage into a darkened space in which a wall of mirrors reflects mounds of scrunched-up sheets of white paper, virtually the only props in the entire show.  Peter Mumford’s lighting is gloomy and at times bathed in red.

A Midsummer Nights Dream
A Midsummer Nights Dream: the audience reflected

In a brilliant move, Nick Bagnall – emphasises the fact that two young couples tangled up in forest enchantment are young teenagers by kitting them out in school uniforms, and bringing in two brilliant young actors –  Emma Curtis as Helena and Charlotte Hope as Hermia – who make their stage debut in bravura performances that perfectly capture the mannerisms and body language of teenage girls.

Emma Curtis Helena Charlotte Hope Hermia
Emma Curtis as Helena and Charlotte Hope as Hermia

There is more standout acting from Garry Cooper (doubling up as Theseus and Oberon), Sharon Duncan-Brewster (doubling as Hippolita and Titania),  and Cynthia Erivo as Puck.  And then there is Andrew Schofield’s brilliant gang of Mechanicals, clad in high-vis jackets, with especially physical, rumbustious performances from heavy-weight, bearded Dean Nolan as Bottom and Lewis Bray as Thisbe.

Dean Nolan as Bottom, with Emma Curtis as Helena
Dean Nolan as Bottom, with Emma Curtis as Helena

We tend to think of A Midsummer Night’s Dream as a comic and high-spirited romp full of fairy magic, but this production brought more clearly into view Shakespeare’s less than sentimental, edgy portrayal of love.  The forest is dark and the fairies are covered from head to toe in black. Cynthia Erivo’s Puck is a master of ceremonies who guides the action with an wave of her silver-topped cane, causing chaos with love potions and mistaken identities, and exclaims: ‘Lord,what fools these mortals be!’.

Magic in this reading of the play represents something sinister, unpredictable and irrational. Instructed by his master Oberon, Puck’s mistakes in his use of magic creates conflict and animosity among the four young lovers. I noticed, too, how frequently the word ‘hate’ recurs and how each of the four romances depicted by Shakespeare is darkened by moments of betrayal, cruelty, deception – and even threats of rape and death.

With all the poetry and comedy that follows, it’s easy to forget that in the play opening scene, with Athens’ ruling couple, Theseus and Hippolyta, preparing for their marriage feast, Theseus recalls bluntly, ‘Hippolyta, I wooed thee with my sword, and won thy love doing thee injuries.’ Moments later, Theseus threatens the young Hermia with death, unless she obeys her father and abandons her love for Lysander in order to marry Demetrius.

Next, we encounter the fairy king, Oberon arguing with his queen, Titania, over a boy that she has adopted. We soon realise that Oberon is plotting revenge against Titania, suspecting her of cheating on him. The means by which he exacts revenge and punishes Titania – bewitching her into making love to an ass – is perverse and humiliating (albeit, of course, very funny).

Once Puck’s misplaced magic begins its work further humiliation is endured by Hermia and Helena, who pleads to Demetrius, ‘Use me but as your spaniel – spurn me, strike me.’ He responds by threatening her with rape, ‘For I am sick when I do look on thee’:

If thou follow me, do not believe
But I shall do thee mischief in the wood.

You do impeach your modesty too much,
To leave the city and commit yourself
Into the hands of one that loves you not;
To trust the opportunity of night
And the ill counsel of a desert place
With the rich worth of your virginity.

With both Lysander and Demetrius, under the influence of the juice of the flower love-in-idleness, both suddenly switch their amorous desires from Hermia to Helena, who treats their proclamations of love as cruel jokes: ‘Can you not hate me, as I know you do,’ she wails, ‘but you must join in souls to mock me, too?’

Of course, Shakespeare complicates matters by presenting the venom of the young men as being the result of a magic potion. And, in this production, successful casting of Charlotte Hope (Hermia) and Emma Curtis (Helena) dissipates the pain in the young girls’ lines. Dressed in modern school uniforms, they both deliver their lines in convincing representations of modern teenagers that defuse the words and make them comic.

At the same time, however, you leave the theatre with the lasting memory of Demitrius (played by Matt Whitchurch), revealed to be an complete chauvinist, his threats of rape and assault crossing the line from petulance to something much worse. I have certainly never noticed these bits before.

Up and down, up and down
I will lead them up and down:
I am fear’d in field and town;
Goblin, lead them up and down.

Dream Titania and Bottom
Sharon Duncan-Brewster as Titania and Dean Nolan as Bottom

But central to the darkness is the figure of Puck or Robin Goodfellow who would have been a popular and well-known character to Shakespeare’s fellow-countrymen and women when he wrote the play. In English and Celtic folklore, Puck was a faerie or goblin, and by medieval times had come to be an alternative term for the devil. Puck was a shape-shifter, and in popular mythology used his many guises to make mischief. Robin Goodfellow was another medieval nickname for the devil, a hobgoblin also famous for shape-shifting and leading travellers astray:

Either I mistake your shape and making quite,
Or else you are that shrewd and knavish sprite
Called Robin Goodfellow. Are not you he
That frights the maidens of the villagery,
Skim milk, and sometimes labour in the quern,
And bootless make the breathless housewife churn,
And sometime make the drink to bear no barm,
Mislead night-wanders, laughing at their harm?
Those that Hobgoblin call you, and sweet Puck,
You do their work, and they shall have good luck.
Are you not he?

Shakespeare was also picking up on popular customs that counterposed the rationality and order of daily life and work with misrule and the rejection of social constraints. In 1583, the sour, puritanical Philip Stubbes wrote in his The Anatomie of Abuses:

Against May, Whitsunday, or othertime all the young men and maids, old men and wives run gadding over night to the woods, groves, hills, and mountains, where they spend all the night in pleasant pastimes…. And no marvel, for there is a great Lord present among them, as superintendent and Lord over their pastimes and sports, namely, Satan, prince of Hell.

Thus the concept of ‘a midsummer night’s dream’ would have been instantly recognisable and understood by the audiences who attended his play: a dream both lasciviously desirable, but also fearful in its irrationality and breaking of social codes.

Midsummer Nights Dream at the Everyman. Actors L-R Michael Hawkins, Dean Nolan, Alan Stocks, Drew Schofield
The Mechanicals:  Michael Hawkins, Dean Nolan, Alan Stocks, Andrew Schofield

Of course, in any production it’s the Rude Mechanicals who steal the show, as they did in the Everyman’s production – in spades. As Bottom, Dean Nolan – amazingly athletic and nimble for such a well-built man – cavorts, somersaults, and generally over-acts his way around the stageas if he owned it. Several reviews have mentioned how he seems to be channelling an inner Brian Blessed. All of the Mechanicals’ performances are hugely entertaining. Andrew Schofield Plays the group’s leader, Peter Quince, with a mischievous twinkle, while Lewis Bray as Francis Flute, allocated the female role of Thisbe in their play, is as outrageous as Dean Nolan.

The Mechanicals: Andrew Schofield and Lewis Bray

I still have a vivid memory of seeing Peter Brook’s historic production of this play when it arrived at the Royal Court during a world tour in 1972-3 that followed its acclaimed appearance at the RSC in Stratford. The set consisted of a brilliantly-lit white box which replaced traditional designs with a pretty forest and a classical Athenian court. Most memorably, the actors wore brightly-coloured garments and performed like acrobats, employing skills such as plate-spinning and trapeze-flying .

Brook’s production amazed because he staged it with no reference to the past, no reverence for tradition. He stripped the play down to a central core, a magic playground of lost innocence and hidden fears.

Now the hungry lion roars,
And the wolf behowls the moon;
Whilst the heavy ploughman snores,
All with weary task fordone.
Now the wasted brands do glow,
Whilst the screech-owl, screeching loud,
Puts the wretch that lies in woe
In remembrance of a shroud.
Now it is the time of night
That the graves all gaping wide,
Every one lets forth his sprite,
In the church-way paths to glide:
And we fairies, that do run
By the triple Hecate’s team,
From the presence of the sun,
Following darkness like a dream,
Now are frolic: not a mouse
Shall disturb this hallow’d house:
I am sent with broom before,
To sweep the dust behind the door.

Brook was one of the first to double up the roles of Oberon and Theseus with those of Titania and Hippolyta (as in this Everyman production) to emphasise how the fairy King and Queen were the alter egos of the Athenian rulers, and to suggest that the conflicts and erotic adventures in the darkness of the nocturnal wood represented the eruption of irrational, subconscious fears and desires: the darkness on the edge of town.

If we shadows have offended,
Think but this, and all is mended,
That you have but slumber’d here
While these visions did appear.
And this weak and idle theme,
No more yielding but a dream,
Gentles, do not reprehend:
if you pardon, we will mend:
And, as I am an honest Puck,
If we have unearned luck
Now to ‘scape the serpent’s tongue,
We will make amends ere long;
Else the Puck a liar call;
So, good night unto you all.
Give me your hands, if we be friends,
And Robin shall restore amends.

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