Matthew Dunstar hurtles his audience into the 21st century in this brave and original adaptation of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Regent Park’s iconic Open Air Theatre would appear to be the ideal setting for a production of this play, and sitting under the moonlight of a balmy London evening in the leafy surroundings of the park, I was expecting a charmingly traditional tale of romantic enchantment. Instead, the audience is immediately faced with a stage revealing a stark gypsy caravan site, complete with an imposing crane, pumping drills and rowdy builders who fight each other and guzzle beer. This is no conventional adaptation, then, rather it would appear that it is Shakespeare via an episode of My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding.
Inevitably, this interpretation allows for plenty of humour in its depiction of a quartet of lovers who cavort, bare-knuckle fight and wear tacky, enormous dresses at their joint wedding celebrations. The unruly construction workers that make up the Rude Mechanicals also provide comic relief in a hilarious, if somewhat bizarre rendition of Shakespeare’s Pyramus and Thisbe scene that is littered with references to today’s X-factor generation. However, Dunstar’s version of the Dream almost verges on a nightmare, forcing the audience to face some sobering truths about Shakespeare’s hugely popular play.
Dunstar’s Athens is a crumbling caravan site, soon to be destroyed to make way for Athensfield shopping centre. The huge billboard that ominously dominates the backdrop of the stage becomes a symbol for the ruthless side to the capitalist world, which allows no place for difference. Elsewhere, the play offers some sobering truths about the theme of patriarchal dominance within Shakespeare’s plays. In this dream, Theseus wins his wife’s love ‘through injuries’ in the literal sense, as Hippolyta often appears battered and bruised on stage. Similarly, Egeus’s forceful attempts to marry his unwilling daughter to Demetrius take on a more potent meaning when depicted within the context of today’s travelling community.
Shakespeare’s magical fairy world is no less dark under Dunstar’s hand. His Puck is a brooding ‘hoodied’ youth on a BMX, whose capricious and cheeky nature is here transformed into something more sinister. Puck’s closing lines of the play serve to unsettle the audience, as he promises to restore amends whilst standing in the shadow of a bonfire that echoes scenes from the London riots. Meanwhile, a plagued and hysterical Titania is also a victim of male dominance, flung around as though a puppet by very masculine fairies on one side, and enchanted by her own husband on the other, as a punishment for her maternal instinct towards her changeling boy.
Although a brave endeavour, Dunstar’s modern day rendition is occasionally lost to the concept; with vulgar love scenes and references to reality TV sometimes working to the detriment of Shakespeare’s original meaning for the text. However, it is the magic within the fairy scenes that truly captivate the audience; Jon Bausor’s set literally and symbolically rips the ugly reality of an impoverished travelling existence to reveal the dream, as a collapsing caravan is transformed into an ethereal yet gothic oasis. Not a play without deeper meaning, then, but a refreshingly modern take on a classic play that really is worth seeing.