Written by William Shakespeare, Adapted by Helen Jeffery

Directed by Daniel Taylor

Cast: James Templeton (Puck), Sharon Byatt (Hippolyta/Titania), John Schumacher (Theseus/Oberon), Sophie Coward (Hermia), Nick Wymer (Egeus/Peter Quince), Simon Willmont (Demetrius),  Sam Donovan (Lysander), Thomas Casson (Guard/Snout/Wall), Chloe Taylor (Helena), Daniel Taylor (Bottom/Pyramus), Timothy Lucas (Flute/Thisbe), Neville Cann (Starveling/Moonshine), Fra Gunn (Snug/Lion), Faye Griffiths (Peasblossom), Emma Sellars (Mustardseed), Emily Chesterton (Cobweb), Georgina Pye (Moth)

And so, with a cascade of rose petals, Shakespeare comes to the Epstein Theatre for the first time. It’s a confident and beautiful debut for him, pared down to just under two hours with magic, comedy and women firmly to the fore. The love stories are played down and it’s a liberating experience.

Sean Gibbons’ set design hangs a huge full moon low across the back of the stage, with firefly-lit strips of diaphanous white fabric as an eerie birch forest. Inspired work in sound and lighting by Peter Mitchelson make sure this striking forest stays a star of the show all the way through. The dark green Edwardian auditorium is more than just a gorgeous frame for this: characters chase and scamper through the audience at regular intervals and the play performed by Quince and his Rude Mechanicals is watched by the Athenian Court from the front of the Circle. Slightly awkward but it works.

This play within a play is funny for once: Bottom as played by Daniel Taylor is a pitiful oaf who thinks he’s god’s gift, Fra Gunn’s doleful Snug becomes a hilarious, useless dishmop lion and Thomas Casson playing Snout playing a scene-stealing Wall gives an unexpected and unforgettable performance.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream isn’t a favourite play of mine by any means and the draw here was largely Sharon Byatt, who is luminous and unnerving as Queen of the Fairies: a regal but thoroughly human Titania who only a fool would try to cross. In her first scene as Hippolyta she seems bereft, a Queen in her own right about to lose everything by marrying the appalling Theseus. Definitely no blushing bride-to-be. Byatt is outstanding, as is Chloe Taylor playing Helena against type as an intelligent and natural woman who seems quite happy having a life of her own beyond the traditional mooning after wet princelings. All of this comes from Taylor’s performance rather than the script. It’s so refreshing, like the prevailing energy of the  production as a whole.

A great deal of this energy comes from the presence of so many new and youthful performers in its cast. In fact when Hermia is first dragged onto the stage she looks barely adolescent- a shock tactic that works well as an early attention grabber, though it’s far from comfortable. Fortunately Sophie Coward is a lively actor who brings a graceful maturity to the part. When not needed in character she nips behind a gauzy curtain to play the flute, too.

This semi-hidden band of musicians is a welcome element and adds a lot of atmosphere to the forest. Sonorous fluting and discordant strings enhance the Japanese aesthetic already evoked by the opening fight seen in stylised shadow-play and by many of the costumes. One or two scenes might benefit from having silence behind the dialogue but the overall effect is memorable. Real stage magic is used by Puck and the fairies, sparingly so that its impact is maximised.

Puck himself is played with great energy and mystery by James Templeton as a naughty 80s Japanese-punk sprite. The fairies are goths; Bottom and the other actors are dressed in raggedly patched denim overalls and boiler suits. All of this lends clarity to the story, both for the children in the audience and for anyone who shares this former music hall’s unfamiliarity with World of Bard. This seems to be the intention here: to attract new audiences rather than people who’d generally go and see Shakespeare anyway. It seems to have worked, and it will be interesting to see what Daniel Taylor Productions will do next where Shakespeare and the Epstein Theatre are concerned.

Seen 29th April 2017

Epstein Theatre Website