“Immersive” is theatre’s buzzword of the moment. But it has come to mean various different things. On one hand, it can be the sensation of stepping through the fourth wall and being immersed in a world which feels completely real, leaving behind the humdrum of ordinary life. On the other, there is the complex niche genre where you as an audience member have a bearing on your experience of the performance, be that through making active (or passive) choices which then have a tangible impact on how things play out, or wandering through spaces where there are several scenes running simultaneously and it would require repeat visits in order to see all of it. Just when you think you’ve understood how to pinpoint what is and isn’t immersive, another company comes along and throws that definition out of the window.
Watch Your Head’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream is very much the former: a site-specific promenade production. But in truth these are clunky words which risk alienating the general public before they’ve even bought their tickets – and that would be a terrible shame as while it doesn’t break any new ground in terms of immersive theatre, this is a very strong, imaginative and accessible Shakespearean production filled with magic and mischief, set in the breathtakingly beautiful Savill Gardens near Windsor. We were well attended by families, with kids boisterously racing from one scene to the next, lapping up the novelty of multiple locations in the fresh air and fading daylight.
All of Shakespeare’s familiar story is here: bickering lovers, bumbling mechanicals and troublesome fairies – but with plenty more besides. This versatile cast double up as woodland creatures that trill, chirrup and squeak as they guide us deeper into the park. There is the added bonus of live music, ranging from close harmony singing to bluesy jazz, perfectly complementing the 1920s-inspired costumes. The passages of text delivered as song add an extra dimension and are pulled off with great finesse. There’s even a little bit of audience participation snuck in, to great comic effect.
My cast highlight was Joss Wyre as a very magnetic Puck – veering between remorseful child and wild-eyed sprite, there are times when you’re never quite sure if she’s made a genuine mistake or is reveling in the havoc she has created; but then an impish twinkle flashes across her face and we know exactly what she’s up to. There are some roles which demand that you crank the overacting up to 11 and Oliver Lavery is the quintessential Bottom, brashly steamrollering through the tragedy of Pyramus and Thisbe, much to the horror of earnest director, Quince (George Jennings).
By far the stand-out performance of the lovers is Paige Round as Helena – bruised of heart by her unrequited love for Demetrius (Edward Firth), she cuts a very sympathetic character – partly because he comes across as so spiteful that it’s a wonder what she sees in him in the first place, apart from his unattainability. Sara Langridge is effortlessly elegant as Hermia – right up until she loses the affections of Lysander (Jared Garfield) to Helena in a slight ‘puck up’ as the flower juice takes effect and everyone falls in love with the wrong person. It is a joy to watch the two boys squabble over Hermia in a hilarious fight scene.
There’s a large amount of doubling up in the cast, e.g. Theseus/Oberon by the brooding and serious Jack Bannell, and Anneli Page who switches from the gentle, reserved Hippolyta into hippy-dippy Titania. While the mechanicals provide the obvious comedy, it’s really refreshing to see them bring contrast and personality to their secondary roles as the fairies. Joshua Considine as the almost Gollum-like Moth, Bruno Major as a very dopey Mustardseed, and Emma Jane Morton as ethereal fruitloop Peaseblossom.
The only thing that spoils it slightly is the inescapable noise from the Heathrow flight path. There are many beautifully subtle moments which are sadly drowned out by passing aeroplanes – but it is testament to the performers that they still manage to tell a very rich story, even if we do miss a few lines. While this is closer to a traditional Shakespeare than the more experimental end of the immersive theatre spectrum, it is still nonetheless a bewitching production filled with wit, depth and invention that is absolutely worth a trip outside the big smoke. Go and see it.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream is playing until Sunday 19th July at The Savill Garden, Wick Lane, Englefield Green, Windsor, Surrey TW20 0UU. Running time approximately 2 hours including an interval. This is a promenade (walking) production through parkland. In the event of rain, an indoor version will be performed instead. For those travelling from London, the closest station is Egham and taxis are available outside; it takes around 10 minutes and costs about £9 each way. For tickets and more information, please go to http://watch-your-head.co.uk/