Continuing the ubiquitous World War I theme, innovative company Immersion Theatre have embarked on a fascinating project to present Shakespeare’s classic A Midsummer Night’s Dream as two separate plays – a ‘dream’ and a ‘nightmare’. ‘The Dream’ is set just before the start of the First World War, while ‘The Nightmare’ is set during the conflict. Both plays were on at the Brockley Jack Studio Theatre for a week, and as I couldn’t decide which one to see, I booked for both – the Saturday matinee followed by the evening performance.
‘The Dream’ was set in a beautiful woodland, the UK flags hanging over the doors reminiscent of the reputed ‘golden summer’ of 1914. It was a superbly performed traditional interpretation, with a touching exploration of the relationship between Theseus (Brian Merry) and Hippolyta (Nicola Dalziel) and their fairy alter-egos, Oberon and Titania. The four young people were sympathetic and spirited, with Kristy Bruce as Hermia, Rochelle Parry as Helena, Jack Harding as Demetrius and Oliver Gully as Lysander all giving strong performances. James Clifford was a very funny Bottom, with the rest of the hardworking cast doubling up as the workmen.
‘The Nightmare’ was a bleaker place by far, a society in decay, as evidenced by the tattered curtain above Titania’s bed and the dirty, torn Union flag in the corner. The actors played the same roles as in ‘The Dream’ – but what a difference. I had been apprehensive about seeing the same play twice in one day, but I was riveted throughout. I can partly put this down to the length – each production was just two hours including interval – but mostly it was because of the performances of the actors.
In ‘The Nightmare’, Theseus and Hippolyta have a fraught and distant relationship. Whereas in ‘The Dream’ their love for one another was genuine, here there is an intimation that Hippolyta has been forced into the marriage. The relationship between Oberon and Titania is similarly portrayed. In an interesting take on the Demetrius/Lysander battle for Hermia’s hand, Demetrius is in uniform but Lysander is not – could Lysander be a conscientious objector, and is this why her father Egeus (Rob Taylor-Hastings) objects to the match? Here, there is no happy reconciliation between father and daughter. Without offering a spoiler, there is a touching moment between Helena and Hermia at the end of this version which adds extra frisson to the play.
Bottom is, here, a more knowing character, a bumbling fool but a mildly threatening one. The play-within-a-play is funny, as it is in ‘The Dream’, but there is also a real sense of menace as Theseus loses patience with the players, who struggle on with their parts. In ‘The Nightmare’, the fairies are tormented spirits, the ghosts of those who have fallen before their time, manipulated by a malevolent Puck (superbly played by Ella Garland).
Immersion Theatre are touring their innovative productions over the next few months. At some venues they are performing both shows, at others they are presenting only one. If you can only see one version, I would suggest ‘The Nightmare’, as it is such a huge departure from the norm where A Midsummer Night’s Dream is concerned. However, if you have young children (under 12s are not permitted at ‘The Nightmare’) or prefer lighter shows, ‘The Dream’ is a high quality, more traditional production. If you can, though, I would strongly recommend seeing both plays – I found that seeing one enriched my understanding and appreciation of the other, and they are both fantastic shows that deserve to be seen.