This production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, with an orchestral accompaniment of Mendelssohn’s incidental music and staged in the grand Sheldonian Theatre, is a vaultingly ambitious piece of student theatre – and it pays off. In the two-and-a-half hours of its duration, the audience is presented with a veritable glut of high culture and low humour. Director Ella McCarthy brings Shakespeare down to earth and takes the audience into heaven, and it’s brilliant.
The cast, while good across the board, features several stand-out performances. Emily Albery makes a wonderfully severe Oberon: she watches over (often literally, making use of the Sheldonian’s tiered seating) the play’s general buffoonery with the perfect mixture of austerity and amusement, exuding a world-weary cynicism that belies her age. Ella Khan is equally brilliant as Helena, delivering many of the show’s biggest laughs while also remaining convincingly lovestruck. In terms of humour, however, Joseph O’Gorman steals the show. He plays Bottom with rambunctious, cack-handed brilliance, comic vitality leaking from his every pore.
Speaking of which: one of the most striking things about this production is its slapstick. Puck (Albert McIntosh) leaps about through the orchestra, teetering next to the conductor; bicycles are ridden (inside the bloody Sheldonian!) and there are enjoyable mock-fights between both Helena and Hermia (Emelye Moulton) and Demetrius (Liam Sargeant) and Lysander (Adam Goodbody). Indeed, one of the best things about the production is that, despite its aforementioned ambition, it doesn’t take itself too seriously. There is genuine humour and chemistry between the actors, and it was great to see members of the orchestra laughing along with the audience. Such warmth nicely offset the grandeur of both the surroundings and the music, which was sublime and played wonderfully. To utter a cliché, it tells the story as much as the actors do.
This is not to say that the production is flawless, but rather that the flaws are lost in the magic of the experience. That being said, they are extremely minor. The programme states that “we visit A Midsummer Night’s Dream through the Oxford University bubble” but, other than the fact that the production is in the Sheldonian, and the Sheldonian is in Oxford, this fails to come across. I’m being churlish, but a couple of mortar boards and the odd mildly incongruous reference to the Junior Dean do not a modernisation make. McCarthy’s unwillingness to tamper too much with the original is understandable, but leaves the play, like so many other “modernisations,” somewhat outside the space-time continuum.
Overall, however, this is a fantastic, even magical production. It feels professional in everything but its delightfully amateurish good-nature. The applause was thunderous, and everyone left feeling invigorated by what they had seen and heard, their heart a little quicker and their week a little brighter. It shows what, at its best, student theatre can be.