'A Midsummer Night's Dream' – Bristol Old Vic with Handspring Puppet Company
Director Tom Morris’ collaboration with Handspring on this Bristol Old Vic version of ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ uses an impressive array of puppet types and puppet-human hybrids, not only tabletop puppets and object theatre, but many more besides.
Oberon, for example, is portrayed mostly with a sculptural bust held overhead by the actor-animator and a giant arm with toggle controlled fingers. Snug practices his lion part by executing hand ballets. The faerie Cobweb's face transforms from beautiful woman (enticing spectators with the promise of 'kissy kissy') to horned demon as in Japanese bunraku. The woodland setting, represented by planks, is animated by movement, tapping, song.
The scene is first set in Hippolyta's workshop – a sculptor, she is working on a pair of figures with cane bodies and carved heads. The schematics are painted on a cloth backdrop. These figures, we come to learn, are the ancient forest gods or royal faeries Oberon and Titania, summoned into the world to bless Hippolyta's marriage to King Theseus.
Hermia and her age-mates, Helena, Lysander and Demetrius, are all have tabletop puppet doubles. The puppets are playthings, markers of status, stylised means of communication to others and themselves. They are interrogated by Theseus, tucked under an arm when travelling in the enchanted woods, and posed in iconic positions during moments when their ‘owners’ directly communicate to others or reflect upon their fate in soliloquies.
Challenged and tested by the mischievous Puck, embodied by tools and implements of Hippolytas's workshop (gas burner for face, saw for arm) that continually shift in size and form when animated by three blue-jacketed cast members, the four lovers gradually abandon their puppet doubles and come into social maturity, marrying on the same day as their king before the old gods.
The wedding’s chosen entertainment is of course the tragedy of Pyramus and Thisbe, a puppet show here enacted with roughly-carved planks. The lead actor Bottom almost doesn't make the show after being magicked by Puck into an hilariously obscene donkey, splayed half-naked on a wheeled vehicle, his legs up in the air and costumed like donkey's ears, his bare ass in place of a face.
At the masque's end, Puck returns with the lovers’ four discarded puppet-dolls in a baby carriage, ready for future recycling. The statues of Oberon and Titania come to life (animated from within like the walking giants of premodern Europe) and the lovers couple passionately on stage as the lights dim.
None of the actors in this production seem to have had any prior puppetry experience but carry off the considerable technical demands with aplomb. This is perhaps the most dramaturgically sophisticated and conceptually accomplished piece of theatre with puppets this reviewer has yet seen. This is a landmark show, one not to be missed.
'A Midsummer Night's Dream'
A Bristol Old Vic production in Association with Handspring Puppet Company
Directed by Tom Morris
Designed by Vicki Mortimer