'A Midsummer Night's Dream' review or 'Bottom turned on its head.'

'A Midsummer Night's Dream', William Shakespeare/Handspring Puppet Company
Barbican Theatre, 10th February 2014
Written for Blouin Artinfo 

Let’s compare Bottoms. In Michael Grandage’s bog-standard take on Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night’s Dream, David Walliam’s Bottom – once he was transformed into an ass – wore a fake tail and pointy ears. In the Handspring Puppet Company version, Bottom merges with a rickety four-wheel cart; his knees become ears, his ass acts as his body and his head sprouts a tail. All that was predictable in Grandage’s production, surprises in Tom Morris’ show. All that was humdrum turns magical.
The shadow of Shoreditch High Street hovers over Tom Morris’ quirky modern-dress affair. Hippolyta and Theseus (Saskia Portway and David Ricardo Pearce) look like hip art teachers, all quiffs and leather. The four lovers, young and casually dressed, could be their students. The show opens in Hippolyta’s art studio, awash with sketches and props. These scattered props will form the framework for the fairies, their forest, followers and magical potions.    
The puppets – the calling card of War Horse creators Handspring - are only released once the lovers enter the forest. The grand sweep of War Horse has been replaced with a humbler and more piecemeal approach. Oberon’s fairy, Puck, is portrayed using an eclectic bunch of props - a wicker basket, fork, sheath and mallet – which are controlled by three actors. Queen of the fairies, Titania, is invoked with a large mask and a few planks of wood and Theseus, a giant hand and mystical mask.

The mechanics of creation are brilliantly exposed, reminding us of the integral connection between magic and the imagination. Director Tom Morris and designer Vicki Mortimer use just a few planks of wood to ingenious effect. Held up by the ensemble cast, these planks serve as trees, wings, crowds, fairies and scene dividers. They also allow exceptional fluency; with just a twist of the planks, the fairies become mechanicals or the woods disappear.

Portway and Pearce are warm yet commanding, first as Hippolyta and Theseus and later as the Fairy Queen and King. They never over-egg the majesty of their roles. The four young lovers struggle to make an impression against the bewitching puppets but Akiya Henry makes an impression as the splittingly outraged Hermia. Miltos Yerolemou is an exceptional Bottom; so much rougher than Walliams’ smooth performance and so much funnier for it.
But it is the puppets that enthral us, their power building as our imaginations take hold. Titania’s fairies – often portrayed as pretty and harmless creatures – are deliciously strange and ugly. A weird creature with a frozen clown face glides through the air, a china doll opens her mouth and bleeds, a skeletal bird flutters its wings and a couple of spatulas flicker about, buzzing and lifelike. To steal Shakespeare’s words: ‘a most rare vision’ indeed!