Review: A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Shakespeare isn’t getting any younger, and here his Midsummer action finds itself wandering the halls of a nursing home

A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Abbey Theatre, Dublin


Shakespeare isn't getting any younger. Just last year Romeo and Juliet returned to us, in Selina Cartmell's striking production of A Tender Thing, as aged lovers – still wooing and grieving through dementia and palliative care. Now Gavin Quinn has staged A Midsummer Night's Dream, Shakespeare's tangled comedy of misdirected young lovers, fairy intervention, amateur dramatic stumblebums and weddings, among the residents and staff of a nursing home.


It’s a brilliant idea. Nothing captures the humour and tragedy of this conceit better than the opening moments, when Aedín Cosgrove’s marvellous set is revealed, and a conga line forms among the wheelchairs and walkers; the kind of mandatory cheer that weighs down the soul. Quinn, best known for his riveting reinterpretations of classics with Pan Pan Theatre Company, struggles slightly with an institution too. For Pan Pan, he might have reordered and rewritten the text; for the Abbey, he chooses to observe the sanctity of the play.

The text has been nudged slightly; but it shoves back. Instead of complaining to the duke of Athens about his daughter’s disapproved suitor, David Pearse’s Egeus here complains to the nursing home doctor (a stoic Declan Conlon) about his mother. “Know of your age,” he tells Aine NíMhuirí’s Hermia (rather than her ‘youth’), “examine well your blood”. Such shifting responsibility echoes “second childishness” and accentuates the play’s shivers of mortality. When Oberon (Conlon again) and Titania (Fiona Bell) meet, they are born aloft on zimmer frames; Puck’s hallucinogenic “love juice” is administered via drip. But while the transformation of clinical material into something otherworldly is inspired, the play still demands supernatural forces, served less imaginatively with a jumble of Halloween costumes.

As ever, the boys get all the fun. The Rude Mechanicals, led by Pearse and derailed by Andrew Bennett's excellent and quite sensitive Bottom* appear to the strains of Johnny Cash; John Kavanagh (who is both a hoot and in utter command of the language), struts around like Mick Jagger; Dan Reardon, in leather jacket and sunglasses, is an absolute ringer for Lou Reed. Like these superannuated sex gods and sprites, this gives the production an artificial hip. But what about the girls? Where are Marianne Faithful, Debbie Harry and Patti Smith?

Fiona Bell is one of our finest performers, but she is treated here like a sculptural object, something radiant and inert. Finding no strong interpretation for the words or the character, the drugged and humiliated Titania seems more abused than ever. Gina Moxley does better, as the lovelorn masochist Helena: "I am your spaniel," she tells Barry McGovern's spirited Demetrius. "The more you beat me, I will fawn on you." Oh, Helena. Mr Grey will see you now.

For all that, this Midsummer needs to be seen. It opens up new possibilities for the Abbey stage while slyly alluding to its past. And the inclusion of various sonnets, spoken beautifully by Máire Ni Ghráinne and Stella McCusker, gild the play's crazy desire with grief. That cuts to the heart of Quinn's boldest idea and, ultimately, Shakespeare's play: just like the "most lamentable comedy" of Pyramus and Thisbe, we watch the course of love, whether true or false, running merrily through death and into eternity.

Until Mar 28

*Oh, grow up.

Peter Crawley

Peter Crawley

Peter Crawley, a contributor to The Irish Times, writes about theatre, television and other aspects of culture