Another Olympics Saturday means another bargain £20.12 trip to the Open Air Theatre for us. Mighty chilly it is too, if we’d come a couple of months ago I think we’d have only made it to the second act if we were wrapped in sleeping bags a la Doon Mackichan and Darren Boyd in the Direct Line ad.
Throwing caution to the wind we decide against the self prepared picnic and opt for the theatre's barbecue, which is £5.50 if you pre-book and is delicious, homemade burger with a choice of three salads. We still need the cool bag of course, stuffed to the gills with bottles of Pinot and pre-mixed vodka and tonic, well we have to have some protection against the arctic winds that engulf Regent’s Park after sunset.
Much has already been written about director Matthew Dunster’s contemporary take on one of Shakespeare’s most popular plays, but Dunster has re-invented this classic to great success and made one of the Bard's most beloved works even more accessible.
In a modern day gypsy caravan park, big man “Duke” Theseus rules his fellow travellers, his bride to be Hippolyta and an enslaved group of workmen with intimidation and violence. The workmen are ordered to prepare a play to be performed at Duke’s upcoming wedding. Two young couples Hermia, betrothed to Demetrius but in love with Lysander, and Helena in unrequited love with Demetrius, run away to a forest which unbeknownst to them is a fairy kingdom. Here fairy king Oberon and his queen Titania play games with them and the workmen busily rehearsing their play. An evening of meddling fairy magic follows and the course of true love does not run smooth, but by the end of act two and a triple wedding complete with fabulous Thelma Madine style dresses, all is as it should be. Amazingly, Dunster still has more up his sleeve and provides us with a final twist and a satisfying denouement as Hippolyta and the workmen manage to break free of Theseus.
From the blatant Big Fat Gypsy Wedding setting to a Britain’s Got Talent style dance routine by the workmen and an LMFAO turn from the girls, this is Shakespeare for the twitter generation. Bright and brashy with a dark undercurrent but with a hopeful central core.
David Birrell surprises as the angry Theseus, genuinely menacing and violently manipulative in what is the first non-musical role I have seen him in. Tamsin Carroll and Christopher Colquhoun give us the most sensual Titania and Oberon imaginable and George Bukari’s ego inflated Bottom and Harry Hepple’s ukulele playing Quince lead the workmen mechanicals with ever increasing hysteria (the iambic pentameter sung to the tune of Elvis Presley’s Suspicious Minds anyone?). A big shout out to Rolan Bell, extraordinary as Coalhouse Walker in last week’s Ragtime, here in a much smaller role, but relishing every comedic moment as the enforced cross dresser Flute.
However the evening belongs to the two young couples, Hayley Gallivan as Hermia, Tom Padley as Lysander, Rebecca Oldfield as Helena and Kinglsey Ben Adir as Demetrius. They capture our hearts and we feel their pain, as first parents and then fairies meddle with their lives.
On Jon Bausor’s magical set, in Laura Hopkins fantastic costumes and with perfectly judged music both found and newly composed by Olly Fox, this is simply the best evening we have spent at the Open Air Theatre since Timothy Sheader’s production of Into The Woods three years ago. Last week I bemoaned Sheader’s tinkering with Ragtime as unnecessary, here Matthew Dunster gives a masterclass in what can be done to bring a classic kicking and screaming into the 21st century.
I just looked at Regent’s Park’s web-site and they seem to have garnered a raft of four star reviews, but I simply cannot see why that elusive fifth star is missing. It was certainly present at the production we saw.