A Midsummer Night's Dream


A Bristol Old Vic production in association with Handspring Puppet Company

A Midsummer Night's Dream 

Puppets, players and bare-faced cheek  A Bristol Old Vic production in association with Handspring Puppet Company 

In their first reunion since collaborating on the world-wide hit Warhorse, Bristol Old Vic artistic director Tom Morris and celebrated puppet company Handspring have created a stark yet stunning reimagining of Shakespeare’s fairy-filled dream.  A set of loosely connected wooden planks, discarded ladders and woodworking tools provide a surprisingly versatile backdrop for the company as they move from Athenian court to woodland glade and back again. But anyone expecting a gentle jaunt through this wooden clad faerie-land is in for a rude awakening.

This highly anticipated production is a creative, surprising and bawdy romp of a dream. Theseus and Hippolyta look more like workmen than the rulers of Athens; Puck is played by not one but three actors – interchangeably brandishing a blow torch, basket, saw and garden fork to create the knavish sprite; and Bottom’s transformation into an ass is shockingly literal. In this timeless retelling, Shakespeare’s text plays second fiddle to bare-faced visual comedy and Handspring’s unconventional puppets.

The combination of puppetry and players is one of the most talked about elements of Bristol Old Vic’s Dream, and its realisation is both beautiful and strange. The four human lovers each carry their own mini wooden counterpart, rude mechanicals are seen sculpting, and later using, the crude figures of Pyramus and Thisbe, and umbrellas are repurposed as the purple blooms of love-in-idleness. 

The balance of puppets and people really shines within Titania and Oberon’s magical realm.  Saskia Portway as Hippolyta and David Ricardo Pearce as Theseus are transformed into the King and Queen of the fairies with giant sparkly-eyed carved wooden masks held above their heads. Gliding above the action, these fairy monarchs have an ethereal omnipotence which is rarely seen in more mortal productions.  Moth, Mustardseed, Peaseblossom and Cobweb, crafted from found objects and sculpted wood, are grabbing and disturbing fairy henchmen with devilish tendencies, more nightmare than dream.

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Alongside the imagination and impressive mechanics, this is also one of the funniest interpretations of the bard’s dream I have seen.  Many of the laughs come from the physical comedy – with the climax of Helena and Hermia’s love rivalry, and Snout’s top-heavy wall in the play-within-a-play particular highlights. The biggest joke of the evening was reserved, naturally, for Bottom, played brilliantly by Miltos Yerolemou. His transformation into an ass finds Bottom trussed upside-down to a hand-propelled four-wheel bicycle – bare-cheeked-posterior facing up, donkey ears strapped to his feet. Undeniably shocking, and raising more than a titter from the audience, this literal interpretation of Bottom’s name certainly left a lasting impression.

Tom Morris’ faerie-land is a world-away from the romantic lushness so often associated with A Midsummer Night’s Dream. It’s a fresh, disorientating, imaginative production which really has to be seen to be believed.  Even the most committed of Dream devotees will be surprised by the puppets, impressed by the physical comedy, and just a little shocked at the rudest of rude mechanicals.


A Midsummer Night’s Dream is at Bristol Old Vic until May 4. www.bristololdvic.org.uk