Enchanting, magical, bewitching, ethereal, phantasmagorical, and any other synonyms you can think of: it’s difficult to overstate just how amazing an experience the Magdalen Players’ production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream was, an experience so good precisely because it feels like a collective dream rather than a play. 

Indeed, the play, directed by Will Shackleton and Freyja Harrison-Wood, was fantastic, but what was especially impressive compared to many student productions was the sheer effort put into the pre-play. From the moment I passed the ticket-scanning, there was never an empty moment, never a time when I was checking my watch, wondering when things would begin. I had already entered the collective dream and the actual play was just one element of that. 

Having to calculate my path towards the entrance so as to avoid being sprayed by a jet of water was wonderfully surreal and a great contrast to the often stuffy and pretentious ambience of a theatre, while the visual juxtaposition of the audience dressed in their finest black tie while sitting on garden chairs or picnic blankets added to the bizarre atmosphere. The band was fantastic and chose their soundtrack excellently to match the vibe, managing to find a way to play ‘What a Wonderful World’ without creating any cognitive dissonance with the setting of Athens. The decision to have one of the company sitting on the stage, reading a book with exaggerated facial expressions, was another brilliant addition of weirdness. All of this created a scene that on the whole made complete sense and meshed well, despite each individual idea being unbelievably strange, perfectly capturing the essence of dream logic.

Much credit for this feeling of reverie must be given to both setting and decorations, designed by Kat Surgay. Having to pass through the curtain of ribbons – strands of purple and orange matching the wisteria and sunset and tying the staging into the nature around – created a physical barrier that allowed the audience the freedom to leave their rationality behind and step into the world of the fairies. The stage being so large and open allowed the multiple interwoven strands of the play to flourish, with fairies, Athenian lovers, and the acting troupe able to occupy spaces distinct from one another, and yet simultaneously within the same forest. It was all enchanting in its truest sense: both beautiful and ensnaring.

The open stage also permitted the ambitious movement and physical acting that really distinguished the play. Rather than inserting movement as a token gesture, movement was incorporated as an integral part of the storytelling in very successful fashion. Some of the most important scenes were narrated principally through physical action, such as the spectacular homoerotic courtship of Oberon (Aravind Ravi) and Bottom (Tom Vallely) to the sound of ‘I put a spell on you’, and the finale set to ‘Stupid Cupid’. 

However, it was Puck (Caitlin McAnespy) and the flock of fairies who really exemplified this ‘integrated-movement’ approach, with their mystique and meaning expressed as much through their rolling, running, creeping and crawling as through dialogue, emphasising their other-worldliness even further. 

Yet this focus on everything except the verbal acting is by no means because I wish to avoid talking about it. On the contrary, every single actor was nothing but brilliant, and the casting was perfect. Lysander and Demetrius (Alex Fagan and Louis Wilson) had a great chemistry with each other, and played their rapid shifts in affection with the utmost earnestness, making those scenes all the more funny; while the deep anger and hurt of Hermia and Helena (Rosie Mahendra and Eva Stuart), and their hatred of each other, was portrayed in such a way that engendered genuine sympathy for the characters’ plight while not taking away from the parallel comedic elements. 

The Mechanicals were wonderfully chaotic throughout, and their crowning achievement was of course the ‘play-within-the-play’ they put on at the end, by far and away the most I’ve ever laughed at Shakespeare. The sheer ridiculousness of ‘The Wall’; the slapstick comedy; Pyramus and Thysbe’s extended deaths aided by the stream of a hose, back-lit by red light; the unexplained and barely-relevant (but of course very cute) introduction of Magdalen’s own Scrumpy the Dog: I have never before been able to see how audiences, Elizabethan or modern, are able to enjoy Shakespeare, but this finally changed my mind. 

Titania’s triumphant trick of Oberon was played with all the required majesty that a fairy Queen (Alice Wyles) needs, and was performed so well that I only learned afterwards that this is not how the story usually goes. And of course Oberon and Bottom were outstanding: Oberon in his seamless and rapid shifts from serious and haughty king to infatuated lover; Bottom in his constant obliviousness, as well as his bike-riding ability in the narrow aisle between the audience’s seats. 

Every single detail of the performance was calculated to perfection: the superb music choices; the integration of recorded sound into the chase scenes through the forest; the lighting which complemented the shift from late-afternoon sun, through sunset to the dark of night. The costumes and make-up were astonishingly good, the best I have seen in a student production, and especially so for Titania, Puck and the fairy flock.

I could go on and on about how amazing this play was and how truly magical the whole experience was. I could use the word ‘enchanting’ until it loses all meaning, but I must finish somewhere. And I think I will finish with my highly-scientific polling of the two audience members who had the misfortune of knowing me and were thus compelled to give me their opinions, which yielded: “cracking”, and “bloody quality, mate”.