First seen in the UK as part of the 2012 Shakespeare Festival in Stratford, the Dmitry Krymov Lab return to the Barbican with their very loose adaptation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The title, a cheekily knowing pun, hints that audiences shouldn’t arrive expecting a traditional approach to Shakespeare and, good as their word, the production bares only a faint resemblance to the original. Stripped away are all elements of the lovers’ escape to the forest and the night’s fantastical adventures; the focus instead is entirely on the rude mechanicals performance of Pyramus and Thisbe to the Court in the play’s final scene.
Yet one cannot dare to perform this play without a sense of the fantastical and this wonderfully imaginative company have inserted a puckish spirit that runs through the production – witness the fountain that unexpectedly soaks most of those in the front of the stalls as the company bumble onto the stage, or the inept ballerinas that close the show and positively dare the audience to laugh at children; these are the kind of mischievous pranks laced with faintest tincture of actual malevolence that Robin Goodfellow would certainly have approved of.
It is also a truly fantastical production thanks to the skillfulness of the performers. Hidden amongst the apparently dishevelled cast are talents that incorporate sublime circus skills, puppetry and singing that brings life and emotional register to a production that always seems one step from disaster. Often in productions the performance of Pyramus and Thisbe is little more than a parody of amateur acting troupes and we see actors playing at being bad actors; here we see actors who genuinely resemble craftsmen putting on a show to their best of their ability. We are drawn in by their passion for their craft and as a result within all the comic effects we begin to care for these absurd puppet caricatures of the lovers.
For all their talents what stops the Lab becoming another Cirque De Soleil is that there is always a purpose underpinning the action. They come up with wonderful ways to express ideas but they are nearly always tied to a clear purpose. With companies like Cirque De Soleil everything is delivered with such a ponderous self-importance that it fatally weighs down anything of substance but here their exists a joyously absurd spirit to the production that means it is impossible not to be swept along.
It appears to have become de rigueur in reviews to name check Venya, the Jack Russell terrier who has a personality to match anyone in the cast, and whilst I find performing animals to be rarely of interest in this case it is hard to disagree. It has been remarked that bringing children and animals onto stage adds a certain energy that it is difficult to replicate, as it creates the potential for the unexpected in an arena that is often very formal. However, for example, in the Barbican’s recent production of The Wild Duck this tended to translate in practice into a distracted sense of anticipation for when the duck would reappear, but as Venya is on stage for the entire performance and is treated for what it is – a dog that hangs around the theatre company – then once the initial surprise wears off it very quickly becomes accepted as a natural part of the show.
Venya is involved in one of the best gags of the evening; when the lion approaches Thisbe, Venya does what any good dog should do and leap into action to protect its owner, petrifying the man in costume in true cowardly lion spirt and allowing a knowing inversion of the Shakespearian Mechanicals’ fear that the lion would terrify the audience.
The production is brimming with ideas and witty asides, for instance it is difficult not to view the updating of Theseus’ and Hippolyta’s court as a commentary on the Russian nouveau riche; the jokes of the mechanicals may have a vulgarity to them but this is mirrored in the attitudes and entitlements of the audience. The mechanicals capture a sublime beauty through their base nature but their audience displays an ugliness that penetrates their glossy, poised finish.
Overall the production does not transmit quite the same kind of electric power and breathtaking originality of Opus No.7 – possibly the consequence of struggling to maintain energy levels in a show that is now at least two years old – but it is an excellent introduction to the company. It also generates an enthusiasm and engagement in its audience that can be quite rare in theatre that is not explicitly billed as mainstream comedy. They prove themselves equally capable of sight gags, slapstick and absurdist humour, and it has been a long time since I have heard the Barbican ringing with so much laughter.
This is their second Barbican production in a year and it is certainly hoped that this will be the start of a long-standing partnership that will see this most interesting of Russian companies appear on our shores with increasing regularity.