This Watermill Ensemble production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream adapts the humour of Shakespeare’s original, combining it with music by Billie Holiday and Nina Simone. Unlike some adaptations, this production isn’t strongly set in a specific updated time period. However, the costumes and use of instruments evoke a Music Hall setting, which perfectly matches the atmosphere of the theatre.
The cast play all of the instruments for the songs and for the background music. Each member of the cast has multiple roles, carefully balanced by who needs to be onstage for each scene. They have different costumes to differentiate between the roles, as well as a more generic costume of a black suit that they wear primarily when they are providing the music, which perfectly matches the style of the music that they perform.
Like all creative reinterpretations of Shakespeare’s works, they play with the emphasis and delivery of the lines to add humour, as well as creating new layers of meaning or innuendo for a modern audience. However, the most innovative aspect is the addition of various songs by Nina Simone and Billie Holiday. At first, it seems as though the music will not play a main role in the production. The first few scenes use background music but the songs don’t appear until later on. But when they do appear they have a clear link to what is happening in the scene and they are incredibly well executed. As they only appear after a few scenes, they feel slightly unexpected, but in a way that the whole premise of A Midsummer Night’s Dream must have felt when it was first performed. The first few scenes are funny, but almost conventional, especially since the audience most likely already knows the story, so the songs bring in an aspect of the unexpected, without changing the original work.
There is no criticism that can be made of the cast, every member takes on multiple roles with enthusiasm, often contrasting a more serious role in the romantic entanglements with one of the more playful parts of the amateur actors. Victoria Blunt, stepping in to play Bottom, steals the show, perfectly balancing the pride and ridiculousness of the character and playing up to the audience. Molly Chesworth’s Puck also stands out, energetic and cheeky, with the addition of sleight of hand magic tricks to emphasise Puck’s fairy role.
The staging is not complicated, but the actors make use of all of the spaces available at Wilton’s Music Hall, using the balconies and bringing the action into the audience. The atmosphere of the space, combined with the the backdrop and lighting give this production a truly magical feel.