Acid house Shakespeare: Sex, drugs and do-si-dos

I have never seen such a druggy, cannabis-hazed, acid-housed production of A Midsummer Night's Dream. Meanwhile, Vanessa Redgrave and James Earl Jones are failing to earn a standing ovation for their Beatrice and Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing.

New Statesman
Vanessa Redgrave and James Earl Jones, so well paired in Driving Miss Daisy, are failing to earn a standing ovation. Image: Getty

Could Michael Grandage’s exposition of A Midsummer Night’s Dream derive from a misreading of a single line? When Oberon asks Titania to “take hands with me/And rock the ground whereon these sleepers be”, Shakespeare intends a dance so gentle that it will rock the mortals to sleep, as in a cradle. This Dream (runs until 16 November), however, is a rock opera, with pumping pop music, festivalgoers stripped to their underpants, and whole lot of loving goin’ on under the most dilated of full moons.

Obviously the forest police have announced an amnesty on narcotics for the summer solstice. Although the play’s whole plot rests on opiates – the juices of a “little western flower” being sprinkled on Titania and Lysander – I have never seen such a druggy, cannabis-hazed, acid-housed production of this comedy.

The conceit works beautifully well but the play was almost bound to succeed in any case, thanks, as it were, to its “dream” cast. They consistently surprise. Pádraic Delaney is an unashamedly Irish Theseus but returns as Oberon, looking and sounding like a public school-educated Russell Brand. Sheridan Smith, who once said she had a “common face”, starts off dead classy as Hippolyta, with a tight blonde perm, a Thirties wool suit and a clipped, Anna Neagle accent. As Titania, she’s a punk vamp, a Toyah Willcox with work at the rougher kind of cowboy bar on her CV (she can toss a leg over the rail of a spiral suitcase as impressively as Mae West).

Thanks to her TV work as Mrs Biggs and on Jonathan Creek, Smith is a box-office draw. Even more so is David Walliams, who does a lovely, deep-voiced, overeager Bottom, with a habit of dripping his outstretched hand slowly down the faces of his fellow amateur comedians. He makes an aria in many registers out of his death throes in the rude mechanicals’ play, ending them by pressing Thisbe into his groin, fellatio ad absurdum. Funnily enough, though, the actor I enjoyed most was Katherine Kingsley as a sexually aggressive and self-dramatising Helena. Such a danger is she that Demetrius (a buff Stefano Braschi) has to prise her legs together during one attempted female-on-male rape.

The play’s usually interminable first scene passed in about five minutes. After an early interval, we resumed at Act III, Scene Two with Puck’s summary of the action. Given his willingness to dress Walliams in Up Pompeii gear to get a laugh out of his resemblance to Frankie Howerd, I wondered if Grandage considered prefacing this recap with “Previously . . .”. Although the period details skid between 1930 and 1990, this is a version directly aimed at 2013 attention spans.

Grandage’s production may have psychedelic inspirations, but the director’s great gift to Shakespeare, and to us, is to make him line for line, and plotline by plotline, completely clear. There is a risk, particularly with this play, that by doing so, more elusive magic evaporates, and yet so much is gained by clarity. For one thing, you get the jokes.

Over the river at the Old Vic something else extraordinary is happening. Vanessa Redgrave, 76, and James Earl Jones, 82, are failing to earn a standing ovation for their Beatrice and Benedick in Mark Rylance’s Much Ado About Nothing (runs until 30 November). In many ways this is an admirable production. Rylance relocates the action from Renaissance Messina in Sicily to 1944 and Home Counties England, where an airbase is welcoming home an all-black USAF squadron, over here and, after the deprivations of war, oversexed. The nightwatch becomes an elderly Dad’s Army home guard, augmented by Boy Scouts and led by the terrific Peter Wright as one of theatrical history’s few tolerably funny Dogberrys (he is even better playing the Friar).

However. People come to Much Ado for Beatrice and Benedick, the prototypes of every romcom couple who start out hating and end in lurv. Here, our enjoyment is jeopardised by a terrible anxiety that they will forget their lines. On the first night, after some touch-and-go moments, my feeling was merely of relief that they had got through it.

Redgrave looks great, shirted and trousered like a land girl. She has a conversational way with Shakespeare that still works but it is a low-key, autumnal performance and Beatrice’s change from merriment to seriousness is not really marked. Jones, whose fine baritone voice has become muffled with age, speaks many of his great speeches sitting down, and at dictation speed. These two, so well paired a few years ago in Driving Miss Daisy, invent a whole delivery style – ponderous repartee.

Yet what’s most annoying is that the production makes no particular point of the casting. When Benedick concludes that the world must be peopled this surely is the moment for a sly, sarcastic tilt at his future girlfriend’s age. But nothing is made of it. Leonato customarily refers to Beatrice as “niece”. Could Michael Elwyn not put some spin on that? There is much to be said for colour-blind casting. Age-blind, not so much.

Andrew Billen is a staff writer for the Times

A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Much Ado About Nothing are playing at the Noël Coward Theatre, London WC2 and the Old Vic, London SE1