A Midsummer Night’s Dream in New Orleans continues at the Arts Theatre Upstairs, London until 30 August.
Star rating: three stars ★ ★ ★
Theatre company Ruby in the Dust is gaining quite a reputation for presenting classic stories with a fresh and innovative approach which also complements the essence of the text. Bringing that approach to Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream was never going to be an easy feat, but by setting the production during the New Orleans midsummer Voodoo holiday of St John’s Eve, the mystical feel to this particular play has been honoured by director Linnie Reedman.
With the change of title to A Midsummer Night’s Dream in New Orleans, an image is already created of the birthplace of jazz. This has also influenced a song list featuring the music of Dr John, Louis Armstrong, Randy Newman and Professor Longhair, among others, scattered throughout the play, played by a group of actor-musicians.
What is striking from the outset is the apparent blur of era, ranging from 19th century to the present day, with characters appearing to have their roots in different periods, hence a Halloween carnival type atmosphere or mystical time travelling one, if you prefer. The character of Puck (Sid Phoenix) seems to transcend through time as a charismatic but at the same time haunting nymph. His black and white make-up emphasises his long athletic prowl across the stage, his presence well and truly felt, embodying New Orleans with every word and delivering one of the stand-out performances of the night.
The couples’ drama/farce is at times very funny as well as affecting to watch, especially Hermia (Samantha Louise Clark) and Helena (EJ Martin) fighting each other after Oberon and Puck have caused havoc, resulting in the latter being the object of both Lysander and Demetrius’ affections.
Martin has an authentic and honest approach to the role, making her a joy to watch, with your heart breaking for her as well as the ethereal Clark whose southern drawl emphasises her despair and anger in equal measure.
The band of actor-musicians is led by Bottom (Matthew Woodyatt) who provides some genuinely funny moments with his temperamental and deliciously witty portrayal of the character. The level of musicianship demonstrated, especially in Act II by Lowri Amies on violin, is very impressive.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream in New Orleans certainly has some stand-out performances and a fresh vision for a classic play that has to be commended. Whether certain aspects, such as the interjection of classic jazz, adds anything to the production is not always clear, but it certainly conjures up the atmosphere of New Orleans, where this production has based its foundations.