Saturday, July 06, 2024

A Midsummer Night’s Dream – come for a play, stay for the experience and the spectacle (Lyric Theatre, until Sunday 7 July)

The back of Shakespeare’s envelope must have been awash with scribbles and arrows as he wove together the five plots that includes the overriding storyline about an Athenian square of love where no one loves Helena who loves Demetrius who loves Hermia who loves Lysander. There’s a father who must be obeyed, an elopement, a raucous play within the play, a fairy king and queen, and some great death scenes.

While never reaching Inception levels of confusion, I always find that A Midsummer Night’s Dream becomes a bit of a headmelt when I approach it while my brain is already full of other thoughts.

Friday evening was the second time I’ve seen a large community performance on the back of a long stint observing an election count. The first occasion ended prematurely when along with other people sitting in my row we walked back to the car park discussing the unorthodox reworking of the plot and the discombobulating ending that didn’t seem to tie everything together. (Told that there would be a break after the performance that would be followed by a Q&A, we’d all left at what turned out to be the interval, which had been rewarded with a standing ovation to add to the misdirection.)

Last night was a very different affair, albeit on the back of the overnight General Election count in Titanic Exhibition Centre. Staged in the natural amphitheatre to the side of the Lyric Theatre, Midsummer is the first production to make use of the space. And what a treat to behold in this Glastonbury-like field of theatre.

It all begins with a parade of dancers and mechanical floats (ArtsEkta, Chinese Welfare Association and Rogue Encounters) moving along the closed Stranmillis Embankment to music from Beyond Skin’s orchestra. The theatre’s had to submit an 11/1 form to the Parades Commission for each performance! Sean Kearns’ rider will say from now on that he must be dragged on stage while standing inside a dragon. He’s plays Theseus (Duke of Athens) with a whiff of Comrade Poliakoff from Propaganda as well as stepping into the shoes of Oberon (King of the Fairies) with a more panto feel.

Patrick McBrearty throws everything at his roles of Philostrate and Puck, a larger-than-life showman who feels like he’s just have escaped from Alice’s Wonderland in a sequined suit complete with moonwalking, comedic accents, neatly integrated ad libs about the deteriorating weather, and an array of oversized eyewear.

Having left the election count to watch a preview screening of the film Kneecap – out in Irish cinemas on 9 August – I did a double take a few hours later when Jessica Reynolds popped up on stage playing Hermia, the daughter trapped between her own desires and her father’s strong-armed matchmaking.

Neil Keery is domineering as the coercive dastardly Egeus who treats his daughter like a disposable object. Jo Donnelly makes a great director playing the Mechanicals’ Peter Quince.

The characterisation is slightly anarchic. Some characters deliver their lines with the gusto of an RSC performance. Others take a more naturalistic approach with raised eyebrows and vernacular flourishes. An out of breath Helena (played with intensity and verve by Meghan Tyler) puffs on her inhaler. Patrick McBrearty gets to perform some of his lines as a rap.

Coherence comes in the form of each creative discipline being granted the freedom to go wild in the name of exuberance. Scenes take place up trees and inside an old beat-up VW Beetle. Actors arrive on the circular stage on scooters and tandem bicycles. (Some action taking place at ground level in front of the stage had poor sightlines for audience members in the tiered seating stand.) The follow-spot comes into its own in the second half as the light dims and the clouds dull the sky.

No concessions have been made in the stylish costume department (designed by Catherine Kodicek) for the inclement summer weather. The actors commit to their roles, throwing themselves on the wet stage and ignoring the damp that must be seeping under their skin at this stage in the short run.

You’ve come for a play, but despite the heaven’s showering the outdoor arena with rain, you stay for the experience and the spectacle. Director Jimmy Fay’s vision of a relaxed and riotous Midsummer might not work as well indoors in a traditional theatre space, but his immersive – and at times immersed  – production creates a riot of colour and sound that entertains and warms your soul. And the provided ponchos will keep you dry, so don't worry about rain!

A Midsummer Night’s Dream proves that outdoor theatre is possible and opens up the dream that before too long Lyric audiences could be enjoying opera, comedy, music and more theatre on Stuart Marshall’s circular stage on the banks of the Lagan. This production ends its run on Sunday 7 July. Part of the Belfast 2024 programme of cultural celebration.

Photo credit: Ciaran Bagnall

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