Review: A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Cardiff Open Air Theatre Festival, Sophia Gardens

Andy Howells samples a further delight at Cardiff Open Air Theatre Festival with Everyman Theatre’s presentation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

“The course of true love never did run smooth.”  Many storytelling genres have touched upon the trials and tribulations of relationships and many have their roots in William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

The comedy, set in the romantic surroundings of Athens revolves around the forthcoming marriage of Theseus and Hippolyta, the domestic intrigue of four Athenian lovers, the preparation of a play by a group of amateur actors and a war of love and fury that rages between Fairy king and queen Oberon and Titania.

Everyman Theatre’s captivating open-air presentation directed by Paul Clements, opened to great atmosphere and audience reception on Thursday evening.

The presentation neatly opens to the sound of Serge Gainsbourg and (the recently departed) Jane Birkin’s 1969 No.1 Je T’aime, placing the central characters Theseus (the Duke of Athens), Hippolyta, Hermia, Lysander, Demetrius and Helena in a cleverly timeless environment. 

While the characters’ attire is subtly stylised to the 1960s, its style is not too overly busy to put a real date on it. The subtleness therefore makes the arrival and attire of the fairies led by Oberon and Titania with the addition of the sprite Puck, glorious, fantastical, and contemporary.

The backdrop of a stone ruin, in which the characters inhabit and move around, adds to the narrative. As evening falls, real Sophia Garden birdsong blurs with the eerie sound effect of an owl and the Greek inspired surroundings magically come to life, along with the woods (of which the fairy characters animate with branches) and the stage spotlights create an atmospheric glow.

The otherworldliness of A Midsummer Night’s Dream is enthralling as the drama unfolds. The dialogue may still be in Shakespeare’s words, but the performances are very real.

Both Joshua Ogle and Rebecca Baines carry a firm and assuring presence in their roles of Theseus and Hippolyta as they equally enhance their empowerment with contrasting behaviour and passion as Oberon and Titania. Victoria Walters creates an energy of impish mischief as Puck, casting a spell of confusion in the forest between the runaway lovers Lysandra and Hermia (played beautifully by Ruby Wilson and Harriet Maxwell). The ensuing chaos is fun to witness as Demetrius (Thomas Davison) pursues the feisty Hermia in hot pursuit and cruelly ignores Kate Willetts lovestruck Helena.

Both Lysandra and Demetrius’ attentions fall on Helena as Puck’s spell takes effect and Miss Willetts demonstrates a wondrous frenzy as she runs confused from the unexpected attention.

Sarah Bawler brings brevity to her unmissable portrayal of Bottom, (an amateur player who commands more attention than she expects when transformed into an ass and ultimately wins the spell-induced affections of Titania). One could allude that this characterisation of Bottom was raised from a parentage akin to Frankie Howerd’s exasperation and Victoria Wood’s gentleness and ultimately merges with Miss Bawler’s impeccable comic timing and energy.

Be sure to catch this midsummer treat with a dream team ensemble cast. A Midsummer Night’s Dream continues until July 29. For ticket details visit Cardiff Open Air Theatre Festival’s website.

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