(Mark Lawson’s article appeared in the Guardian, 2/14, 2024; Drawing a younger audience … Mathew Baynton as Bottom and Pyramus. Photograph: Pamela Raith.)

Royal Shakespeare theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon
Eleanor Rhode’s ravishing fusion of flamboyancy, surrealism and raucous fun rouses audiences in a youthful, energetic riot

Directors of Shakespeare’s comedy of aristocrats, artisans and sprites getting confused in a wood often seem influenced by one title word. Midsummer stagings are light and magical, Night shows rather darker. Eleanor Rhode’s RSC revival is driven by Dream, crucially incorporating the sub-categories of nightmare and erotic fantasy, including the rather niche reverie of sex with a donkey.

Characters mash, worlds invert, flames burst from fingers, people move backwards (inflecting Tenet and Christopher Nolan’s dreamscape movie Inception), and surreal moments include one that resembles an explosion in a children’s indoor play pit.

Bally Gill’s charismatic doubling of Athenian Duke Theseus and faery king Oberon – matched by Sirine Saba’s sparky pairing of Hippolyta and faery queen Titania – strongly suggest that what we are seeing in the wood scenes is the nocturnal consequence of a big Greek pre-wedding dinner. In this reading, the elf Puck – athletically and musically played by Premi Tamang, replacing Rosie Sheehy, indisposed on press night – becomes a Freudian blurring of daughters, lovers and childhood fairytales.

The non-dream scenes are also strikingly earthy. In the workers’ play-within-the-play, Shakespeare, in casting someone as a Wall, enjoys joking about what the “hole” in such a barrier might be, but this production doubles down on the entendre. Emily Cundick’s Snout / Wall and Mathew Baynton’s Bottom / Pyramus will have required the ingenuity of the credited intimacy directors.

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