A stage coated in dead leaves, a bright faced woman proffering coats to the audience, and a silence. This is the Forest of Eden, where strange and magical things can happen. Spirits frolic in the woods, love potions turn people mad and a donkey’s ears start growing from a man’s head. And it’s not the only thing that feels a little strange at first in the Reversed Shakespeare Company’s version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Pleasance Theatre in London.
A gender reversed version, where females play males and vice versa, it’s a little difficult to get your head around the characters to begin with, and not only because of how they look. Helena (Matthew McFetridge) is a red bearded man, and a man has ‘duty’ to his mother. ‘A scandal on my sex’ feels different when spoken by a man, and it’s almost uncomfortable to see him on his knees begging. All of this just proves how stereotyped our perceptions are and how gendered norms infiltrate everywhere. I never noticed before how Helena’s words ‘Two lovely berries moulded on one stem’ are so phallic until spoken by a man, or how a gentleman fearing a Bottom’s (Ailis Duff) lion is even more ludicrous than women. Charlotte Mulliner plays a brilliant Lysander, and Matt Maltby as Hermia brings out the indignation of being ‘low’ brilliantly.
Super fastpaced (just under two hours with an interval) it’s a bold performance that manages to be entertaining and provoke thoughts to consider. Sometimes confusing and certainly irreverent, a small cast where actors double up makes things even trickier. But it’s worth persevering, especially in a setting where chaos reigns. In fact, it’s a really brilliant way to raise the issue of gender roles and the power of the sexes, without overtly pressing it home. One small change to casting and the rest is in the power of the audience as they engage with the story.
Comedic and physical, touching and delicate, it’s a brilliantly executed performance that feels magical. Raising issues relevant to the era in which it’s performed, and exploring emotions and experiences universal to time and place, it is feels like it is exactly what Shakespeare intended.