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Tony Bell, Vincent Leigh, and Jules Werner in
A Midsummer Night's Dream
(Photo © Manuel Harlan)
In looking at Edward Hall's just about perfect all-male toying with William Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, you see the value of genes. Edward Hall's father is Sir Peter Hall, and the younger man's go at the Bard's comedy is a beautiful instance of "like father, like son" in more ways than one. If you like Peter Hall's work, you're gonna like Edward Hall's enormously, swooningly. So much so that, during at least one scene, you'll find that you can hardly wait to applaud and then, when it finishes, you will lustily do so -- as if this is standard practice at a Shakespeare play.

The younger Hall explains how he mastered the directing art whenever he discusses his dad, which he has been doing since childhood according to Peter Hall's Diaries, published in 1983. In an entry made on Monday, February 17, 1975, the elder Hall recalls that eight-year-old Edward "gave me a long, appreciative lecture about my abilities and how hard I worked." When asked in a more recent interview what he learned at Pop's knee, the man who now runs his own Propeller company said, "He's a great exponent of what I call following the handbook, which is the text. Make sure you serve the writer. Anything you do has to do that -- understand what the writer's intentions are before you come up with wacky and wild ways to express his meaning."

There it is in a nutshell: perhaps everything any director needs to know in order to mount a production as instantly and unflaggingly enjoyable as Edward Hall's all-white Midsummer Night's Dream. (Michael Pavelka is the production designer.) Incidentally, the all-white ladders, chairs, bunting, drapery, and tree-branch chandelier are a reference -- in no way slavish -- to Peter Brook's seminal 1970 reconstruction of the play. The Hall-Pavelka allusion makes a certain sense since, again according to Peter Hall's diaries, Brook has long been a family friend and, as a youngster, Edward palled around with Brook's son, Simon. (This was in the days when almost every English director was named Peter.)

Notice in the above quote that Edward Hall puts equal emphasis on understanding the text and on the wildness and wackiness that can be brought to it. His sympathy with Shakespeare's comedy about the sudden gaiety and abrupt misery of love is total. Written around the time when Shakespeare was also ruminating on tragic young love in Romeo and Juliet, the comedy is concerned with the arbitrary nature of love. Whereas in King Lear, figurative blindness is declared far worse than literal blindness, in A Midsummer Night's Dream floral potions are dropped into and rubbed onto eyes of potential and manifest lovers as metaphorical recognition that the enamored don't often know what they're seeing; love at first sight, or second sight, is blind.

The playwright's slyly expressed contention applies to all the lovers -- high- and low-born, real- or fairy-world -- who populate the classic piece. The youngsters at the center of Midsummer Night's Dream are Hermia (Jonathon McGuinness), who's smitten with Lysander (Dugald Bruce-Lockhart) but is promised to Demetrius (Vincent Leigh), who in his turn is relentlessly pursued by Helena (Robert Hands). Perhaps the highest point of a production that's all high points is the forest interlude wherein both Lysander and Demetrius have been tricked by Oberon and Puck into falling in love with Helena and poor, befuddled Helena believes she's being mocked by both of them with Hermia's complicity. The slapstick, slap-everything playing that ensues is breathtaking; though this isn't a short sequence, hilarity sustains throughout. It's unquestionably the best realization of this scene that I've ever witnessed.

Among Hall's greatest achievements with this treatment is the devotion to it that he's drawn from the 14 men who play it, many of them cheerfully doubling. It's not fair to pick a favorite since they're all remarkably good. I mention the cunning Simon Scardifield first simply because, wearing a floppy tutu and horizontal red-and-white-striped tights, he introduces the evening as Puck, wiggling his hips to music that the actors make themselves. (The cast members use various percussion instruments and harmonicas sometimes held in the mouth so that their breathing in and out takes on a kind of musical sighing.) And if I next mention Tony Bell, who plays Bottom with unalloyed joy; Dugald Bruce-Lockhart, who plays Lysander with comic passion; and Jules Werner, the cute Flute, it's because they're also the three fellows who composed and arranged the, ummm, puckish music.

Jonathan McGuinness and
Dugald Bruce-Lockhart in
A Midsummer Night's Dream
(Photo © Manuel Harlan)
The spurned Helena gets some of Shakespeare's funniest lines to speak; therefore, Robert Hands has the opportunity to tease out as many laughs in the role, and he's found an approach to sexual frustration that pays off handsomely. Jonathon McGuinness, who doubles as Snug, rises to vocal and physical heights. Vincent Leigh, doubling as Snout, makes a stalwart Demetrius and also a moving one; his eventual realization that he indeed dotes on Helena may be the production's most touching moment. But there's really no first among equals here. Matthew Flynn is authoritative yet kindly as Theseus and Emilio Doorgasingh is a fawning, sometimes sulky Hippolyta; Barnaby Kay is a benevolently imperious Oberon and the hairy-chested Sam Callis is a snooty Titania. Chris Myles is haughty as Egeus and deferential as Quince. In smaller roles, Alasdair Craig and Alexander Giles contribute their energy and spirit.

The cast is prepared to take advantage of anything that crops up spontaneously, as a number of them did during the first performance when a bit of business with a toy dog on a pull-string went awry. Actually, the esprit de corps is so overwhelming that it spills into intermission, when the invigorated men turn up in the lobby to sing songs like "All I Have to Do is Dream" (with Tony Bell on fiddle). They're young, they're committed, they're adorable.

A mark of any great play is that it lends itself to new interpretations while maintaining its integrity, so it's intriguing to enjoy this jolly Midsummer Night's Dream while the same-sex marriage issue is flaring up across America. Men performing a play had one meaning in the Elizabeth era, when the convention held sway, but men performing a play now has a different feel. In light of the headlines, the gender bending suggests more socio-political responses. One is that, today, watching men falling in and out of love with women played by men seems to underline the contention that there is no difference between various lovers' actions and motivations, no matter their sex or sexual orientation; therefore all lovers deserve equal rights and considerations. That Hall does or doesn't intend to throw light on the subject (designer Ben Ormerod throws the actual light with sensitivity) isn't the point. It's there to be grasped in what is undoubtedly a homoerotic but also a hetero-erotic presentation.

Some gift-horse that should not be bridled has turned this season into a glorious one for Shakespeare: Liev Schreiber as Henry V, Jack O'Brien's Henry IV, Bartlett Sher's Pericles, Christopher Plummer as King Lear. Now, there's Edward Hall's Midsummer Night's Dream. Theater-lovers, take heart!

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