Puck (Robin Croft) and Oberon (Seàn Bennett) plot magic – photo © Sewell Barn Co
There are some plays that few people really want to see multiple times. For me, for example, one outing to ‘The Mousetrap’ was more than enough, yet I have seen many productions of Shakespeare’s ‘Dream’ over the years and enjoyed every one. This may be unsurprising as it is reputed to be his most performed play, and gives director and cast a sound basis on which to craft their own magic.
The play is cleverly structured, with romance, fantasy and comedy all in abundance in a cast of well defined characters who just about stay within the bounds of believability. Director Clare Williamson makes the most of the intimate space of the Sewell Barn Theatre and set designer Phil Williamson has created a nifty set that transmogrifies from Duke’s Palace to wild woods so neatly that the stage hands got a round of applause just for that change.
Shakespeare wrote his plays for a company about the same size as the ensemble on stage at Sewell Barn tonight so many of the cast take on two roles, or more if they are part of the ‘play within a play’ performed by the rude mechanicals for the Duke and his friends. So we see Seàn Bennett as both autocratic toff Theseus and wily faerie king Oberon, while Netta Jones gives us both the disapproving Hippolyta and the earthy and passionate Titania, Queen of the Fairies. Barney Matley is dour as pleading father Egeus, but shines like an accountant on drugs as Peter Quince, the carpenter directing the workers in their tribute play about Pyramus and Thisbe, the doomed lovers. Perhaps most startling in this performance Robin Croft gives us the dapper servant Philostrate and a Puck with almost psychotic intensity. Avoid eye contact unless you are made of sterner stuff than me.
The four young lovers are performed with great energy by Naomi Cunningham as Hermia, Zach Burbridge as Demetrius, Eva Wright as Helena and José Tarouca as Lysander. In the course of the ‘Dream’ they go convincingly from troubled lovelorn youth to happily betrothed couples thanks to a bit of Puck magic along the way, but not without suffering a good few mishaps on a wild night in the woods.
For the most showy of the mechanicals Shakespeare created one of the greatest of comedy roles with a daftly appropriate name. It is fair to say that Rob Tiffen’s Bottom is a joy to behold, blending the accent of Alf Garnett with the physical comedy of Frank Spencer while fighting to upstage everyone as the hapless Pyramus. Converted by Puck magic to an ass, he becomes the love object of the bewitched Titania in scenes played to the comedy max. He gels too with Megan Saunders as a lively, squeaky Flute playing Thisbe. The three other players (who double as fairies) are given great character by Alexandra Evans, Lewis Garvey and Melanie Peter, with the cast completed by Olivia or Lyra Matley as the cute little changeling child at the heart of the tussle between Oberon and Titania.
This is a lively, confident and joyful production of one of our best known plays which will reward the audience whether it is the first or the fiftieth time they have seen the ‘Dream’. It is a brave show with lots of physical theatre and a good fast pace throughout. Norwich audiences are usually respectfully silent during a show, but there were many scenes that deserved the spontaneous round of applause they got tonight. Above all it is a great bit of theatre in a charming venue.
© Julian Swainson
1 June 2023
A Midsummer Night’s Dream by William Shakespeare produced by the Sewell Barn Company is on at 7.30pm on 1-3 and 7-10 June 2023, with a matinée performance on Saturday 10th June at 2.30pm. Tickets and further info from www.sewellbarn.org