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The Owle Schreame‘s “A Midsummer Night’s Droll” is as sprightly as Puck and as sweet as bully Bottom, and yet there is a certain shiftiness to this production that can be only attributed to its more academic inclinations. The venue is the Space on the Mile and Brice Stafford begins by lecturing us on the significance of what we are about to see. This is an alternative version of William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which was performed illegally during the 1640s after the Puritans had run every theatre out of town. Stafford is simultaneously playing a rather sneaky joke on us with his introduction. He has begun slightly too early and so, as one apologetic audience member tiptoes in after another, he has to repeatedly recommence from the start. This pays off and the house is brought down again and again as they are struggling to put it up.

What follows is a raucous, giddy, and very skilfully performed version of… well, basically a third of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. It is like a leg and a thigh that are protruding from a burqa. The “dream” this time is Bottom’s alone and everything else is in darkness.

There is ultimately a problem here of expectation management. I have come along thinking that I am going to watch some distant, interestingly proletarian cousin of the original play. Perhaps this will even be better than the original – perhaps we have been watching a substandard version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream for the last three hundred and fifty years. But no, this is the same old script, line for line, and merely complemented by some enthusiastic horseplay and merry audience interaction.

Stafford makes a great Bottom – conceivably even the best that I have seen. He effortlessly summons up the wondrous hayseed sweetness of this character, and his delivery of the lines is superb. It is as though a classic Bottom has been paradoxically liberated by this consciously informal production. The fairies Cobweb, Peaseblossom and Mustardseed – all evoked using dried gourds – also add a sinister frisson. The translated Bottom is himself hugely gourd-headed and during a mildly risqué sexual encounter with Titania (Laura Romer-Ormiston), they come to look like a luckless wheelbarrow operative and her escaping vegetables all bouncing down a hill.

I am not sure, however, that I can really buy into this play’s thesis. We are led to believe that during the long dark night of the theatre, when the rich and educated were largely severed from Shakespeare, it was the ordinary, decent, bumpkin actors who kept his flame fed. There is certainly an enjoyable pattern within this play, in that the cast are pretending to be inept actors who are pretending to be inept actors. Yet it feels uncomfortably patronising to depict the folk performers in such an oafish and extravagantly amateurish light. Presumably the droll team were literate; they were organised enough not to get busted; and they were probably mindful that A Midsummer Night’s Dream was of rather more value than just a farce or a pantomime.

When Bottom wakes, therefore, the production trips clean over the majestic beauty of this scene, or else it tries to demote it to a mere linking segment. Owle Schreame get into such a bind because they keep the ass’s head stuck on. If they concede that the droll-tellers were just as sophisticated as we are, they are unable to continue with their anarchic mayhem. I like the mayhem very much, but it should not be set on such a wobbly pedestal.