The haunting, insistent tapping music created on a load of old planks, carried by a young and inventive cast, proved a high point in this inconsistent yet memorable production at the Old Vic. The planks of wood are the central props in the show, playing a myriad of roles from Oberon's fairy hordes to the jaws of a hunting dog, all controlled by the wonderful choreography of the Handspring Puppet Company (War Horse) and the clever movements of the cast.
Having large hunks of wood in a central role is a brave move in any performance, with the possibility of cliched puns groaning from all quarters. However, it pays off admirably, and I would argue that the work done with the 2 by 4 is probably superior to that done with the more conventional puppets. Their use as instruments, elements of large scale dioramas, creeping tides and waves and forest pathways shows a real creative spark, and lent the whole show a sense of delight that it may otherwise have lacked. The traditional puppets, all creaking joints and mischievous faces, were often lacklustre and even redundent. The acting started reasonably and got an awful lot stronger, leaving the odd homunculi-like doppelganger puppets seeming unnecessary and forced, dragging the attention of the actors (and audience) away from the complex language and plot structure of Shakespeare. Oberon and Titania were stronger - the sparse puppetry used well to create ethereal and otherworldly characters that are very difficult to successfully portray in the usual manner. But it was the planks that stole the show.
The Mechanicals were wonderfully played, with the play-within-a-play of Pyramus and Thisbe a manic and super-detailed romp: the wall getting, perhaps, the biggest laughs, which is an impressive achievement. The vigour and timing of the Mechanicals was great, bestowing the script with the skill required to make it truly hilarious. The teenagers in the audience laughed even more than the adults. The love square of Helena et al was reasonably portrayed, but bogged down in the wholly gratuitous puppetry. Attempts were seemingly made at presenting the puppets as external souls, or perhaps the second part of a dual personality - at one point, Hermia and Lysander swap puppets - but it never quite seems to work. Puck was, for me, the true highlight. Portayed using ony a mallet, hammer, basket, saw, chisel and blowtorch, the inventiveness behind one of Shakespeare's most inventive beings is a joy to watch.
And so, before I stop - Bottom. It needs to be mentioned, but I will not give the game away. If nothing else, you have to see this production for the porytrayal of the Ass-form Bottom. The actor playing the role imbues him with an excellent cod-Grecian accent and attitude, but after his transformation, you'll never look at a bicycle the same way again...