A Midsummer Night’s Dream – Lyric Amphitheatre, Belfast ★★★★★

The opening procession, performed by members of Artsekta. Photo: Ciaran Bagnall

Review by Mark Quinn

If you were to conjure up the best production to christen The Lyric Theatre’s outdoor amphitheatre, you’d be hard-pressed to find a more fitting play than Shakespeare’s ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’.

13 years since the new Lyric opened, this dazzling production will have anyone lucky enough to grab a ticket to the sold-out weekend question why it has taken so long for this space to be utilised. Anyone with a cursory knowledge of the Bard’s magical comedy knows the woodlands, so it’s fitting both audience and players are amongst the trees, by the banks of the Lagan. The benefits of the natural set decoration were only slightly undermined by a persistent downpour during Act II. Lyric staff were keen to provide each audience member with a poncho, which really amped up the festival comparisons. 

The Fairies, played by the incredible artists of Rogue Encounters, made full use of the stage and provided the best opportunity to highlight Catherine Kodicek’s kaleidoscopic costumes. The ensemble of musicians and dancers lulled spectators into the ethereal world as the sun and Thesues’s ship were transported across the Stranmillis Embankment.

Jessica Reynolds as Hermia and Meghan Tyler as Helena. Photo: Ciaran Bagnall

A likely outcome of the partnership with Belfast2024, the roads surrounding the theatre were closed to traffic, providing inspired comical Easter eggs for astute observers. For instance, as Hermia (Jessica Reynolds) rebuffs Lysander (Cillian Lenaghan), Puck (Patrick McBrearty) could be seen across the road in the cycle lane on his scooter, eager to carry out Oberon’s (Sean Kearns) request.

Much as Quince (Jo Donnelly) marvels to the Mechanicals about their green plot to stage their play, the set design perfectly adds to the jollity. A large circular platform is complemented by LED hula hoops in the trees. Multicoloured wheels scattered about the scene prove integral to later moments of farce. An abandoned Beetle rounded off the junkyard jungle and added to the overall psychedelic experience, providing the perfect hideaway for Bottom’s (Steven Calvert) transformation.

As with many adaptions, the aforementioned amateur acting troop ran away with the entire show, garnering the biggest laughs; in particular Calvert as Bottom, Donnelly as Quince and Neil Keery as Snout. Perhaps most surprising of all was Cailum Carragher, not only waggish as Flute, but for the briefest of moments bringing believable sorrow to Thisby, bringing the audience to a complete hush before undercutting with perfectly-timed jest.

Leah Minto as Hippolyta and Sean Kearns as Oberon. Photo: Ciaran Bagnall

However, whilst the comedy has successfully been ramped up to full wattage, some supplementary moments of physical comedy didn’t quite land as well as others. Full props to a fabulous Reynolds as Hermia and Ash Rizi as Demetrius who soldiered on, in spite of some mic issues (and this was before the rain had started). The scene in which Puck rectifies his earlier errors with the Athenian lovers is presented here as a Hamilton-esque disco-rap fusion that zips through Shakespeare’s script (albeit perhaps too quickly for anyone unfamiliar with the text). 

Nevertheless, in amongst the fairy lights, and staring at a golden faceless figure dancing along with bubble blasters – it was impossible to not be charmed by the party atmosphere. Puck even paused to announce the end of Act One, handing out ice creams and encouraging theatregoers to visit Bottom’s Boundary (a collaboration with Belfast’s Boundary Brewing – one of many highlighting the city’s offerings). This is just one of many moments where the metatext became reality, and Shakespeare’s show-within-a-show was escalated to thrilling, pantomime-like conclusions. 

Bravo to the Lyric for an audacious production. Inclusive. Interactive. Outstanding. The number of partner organisations who collaborated to create this production is listless, but for the result to be so spectacular and seamless is to be applauded. The absolute best of Belfast.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream plays in the Lyric Amphitheatre at The Lyric, Belfast until 7 July