The very first thing that strikes you about this production – after we see a mini outdoor rave in silhouette, but before a single word is uttered – is the height and sheer enormity of the acting space in front of you.
With three huge elm trees rising a good thirty feet, casting a soft, dappled light across the stage, the English countryside dominates the visuals of the production.
It dominates the text too - but just as the rural idyll is tempered by the remnants of last night’s ‘revelry’ - a broken TV, empty drinks cans and rickety garden furniture tipped upside down - so is the man at its centre a confusion of contradictions and dichotomies.
That man is John ‘Rooster’ Byron (Mark Rylance). He is the ultimate Lord of Misrule who “brings the ruckus” as his waster, wannabe-DJ friend Ginger (Mackenzie Crook) would say. He’s of Romany descent, close to nature, and full of fantastical stories of the giants that once – and according to him, still do – stalk England's green and pleasant land.
But, just like a lot of the characters he brings to mind - in particular Bacchus - there is more than a hint of danger about Rooster; he is also a drug-dealer, a tax-dodger, and a squatter on the council’s land who has just 24 hours to get out before being forcibly evicted.
Byron, then, would be a gift to any actor, but few could inhabit him so completely as Mark Rylance. It is a stunning performance that leaves you in no doubt that a gaggle of hangers-on and fair-weather friends really would be utterly in awe of him. The audience certainly are. You even start to believe his ludicrous stories of being held captive by Nigerian traffic wardens (and watching the snooker semi-final with them) because he has an air of magic which suggests that literally anything could happen to him.
The moments when the Bottom-esque bluster recedes are just as affecting, however. Rylance brilliantly portrays Byron as a man out of time, clinging to ancient ideals while a new estate encroaches on the wild garlic and mayflowers growing around his trailer.
At three and a quarter hours, this play is certainly on the lengthy side, but time spent in the company of these dreamers and drop-outs is certainly time well spent. It is only a shame that reality must hit home in the sombre, at times shocking , third act, and bring this Shakespearean Dream to an inevitable (and as such unfortunately rather predictable) end.
Overall though, the outstanding Rylance is supported by a cast who excel simply by not being completely overshadowed by such a big performance – Crook shines in particular. And, they are all served by a wonderful script that manages to be rich, expansive and inventive, while consistently eliciting the sort of laughs that stand-up comedians would kill for.
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