By Frances Marion Givhan
The stage is covered in mud. Actually, the stage is mud, but you can barely see this in the dark of the Young Vic theatre. A young woman in the front row reaches her hand out to touch the stage and gives a yelp when she realizes what it is made of. This soft, difficult, and forgiving set-up provides the actors in the Young Vic’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream with the perfect chaotic playground for their interpretation of William Shakespeare’s comedy.
Joe Hill-Gibbins does not weave the fantastical world of this Athens and Fairyland in a fairytale way; from the first Latin chant the cast sings at the top of the show, a dark tone descends, remaining there throughout the performance. The mud brings the characters to the earth, with their flaws and base needs. It also gives the actors a dynamic element for playing with levels. When Helena chases Demetrius into the forest, she knocks him down and straddles him as she begs him to love her. He responds by pushing her onto the mud and leaving her to mourn her unrequited love. During her speech, “O, I am out of breath with this fond chase,” she grips some of the damp earth in her hand and flings it at the mirror, the only background for the stage. It is horrifying, the level of self-hatred Helena holds inside her. She seems the most human out of all the characters.
Anna Madeley portrays Helena in a perfectly angsty, truthful way. From her costume to the delivery of her lines, her Helena is layered, complicated, and funny. Her sunshine yellow sundress connects her with Hermia, who wears a similar colored skirt, but while Hermia appears stately in her skirt and blouse, Helena hides herself in a faded, pale blue sweatshirt. This simple costume choice lowers her in status, grounds her, and gives her the means to disappear, a contrast to her desire to be loved. In speech as well, Madeley delivers her lines with sincerity and clever use of Shakespeare’s language. Her scenes with Lysander and Demetrius combine humor and anxiety in perfect balance. When both of the men are under Puck’s magic spell, they have Helena up against the mirror, Lysander kissing up her arm while Demetrius caresses her waist. As Helena pleads with Hermia not to get angry, she turns her face, and, upon seeing Demetrius so close to her, breaks her monologue to kiss him, then promptly returns to it.
The show has beautiful, intricate staging, putting the characters in positions like Helena’s and forcing the actors to react to each other. The cast stayed on stage for the entirety of the show, often chanting in the background or serving as the setting. When Titania and Oberon enter their scene, the rest of the cast acts as the woods, slowly moving as nature does, then running as fast as they could over the mud to create a new tableau. Oberon and Titania move within this space, which resonates with chaos and trepidation. Also due to the actors’ continued presence, character’s quietly play out their own stories while another completely different scene happens downstage; every moment is used to develop the characters.
This particularly affects Hippolyta and Theseus, the former of whom does not have many lines, but Anastasia Hille (double-cast as Hippolyta and Titania) uses the staging to enhance Hippolyta as a full human being. One crucial moment occurs near the end of the play, as Egeus and Hippolyta’s servant messily cover the mirror in black paint. Hippolyta, in her proper suit and heeled shoes digging into the mud, calmly struggles to keep eye contact with her reflection. It is haunting, watching her identity diminish until she can no longer see herself.
Hill-Gibbins instills a sense of chaos and disorientation into every aspect of the production. The costumes grow dirtier and dirtier as the story progresses, characters react as if the events of the play traumatize them, and the ending leaves the audience with a sense of confused desperation. It descends into true madness. Hermia ends up with Helena’s sweatshirt. Hippolyta morphs into Titania when she reunites with Nick Bottom, the player who is turned into an ass. When the four lovers wake up from their “dream,” Hermia wraps herself around Lysander, who remains limply sitting in the mud, only distractedly gripping and crumbling the earth. Helena and Demetrius end up together, but she looks deeply uncomfortable as he settles his arms around her. At the end, everyone repeats a phrase unique to themselves, and at one point, Demetrius wanders to the front of stage left, inquiring, “Are you sure we are awake?” No, the audience is not sure, following a disturbing sensation that all is not okay.