Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream was once described as a play which is better to be read than to be staged.

It’s not surprising. Set in ancient Athens and one of the Bard’s most successful comedies, it has a highly complex, fast and witty plot, consisting of multiple interconnected stories and requiring (if staged without abridging and casting dual roles) over 20 actors, who often storm the stage in great numbers, talking over each other.

Making the play understandable for the audience makes Midsummer Night’s Dream a great challenge for even professional production companies. So it is really impressive how director Joanne Pearce and a cast of students from Oxford’s Magdalen College School so splendidly succeeded.

The young actors mastered script and stage direction to the degree of a professional team and created a surprisingly light, maybe even elusive, but credible and utterly beautiful, take on this difficult text.

And, at the same time, it is an important staging because it shows the cynicism behind most modern comments on the play, which mostly focus on sexuality – which is understandable. Reading Midsummer Night’s Dream now in the 21st century, with its rapidly changing morality and #MeToo movement, one is forced to think about the cynicism of Shakespeare, who vaguely veiled his excitement over four young people who wandered into the woods, became intoxicated, exchanged partners, and declared love and hatred in one sentence – before simply brushing all the events of the night with one stroke. ‘It was all a dream’, we are told. But how often are broken hearts fixed with that line?

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To make things even worse, the text invokes an ongoing rape-drug crisis with Oberon’s usage of a magic plant that makes the subject fall in love with the first person seen after waking up.

When Titania, drugged by Oberon, falls in love with donkey-eared Mr Bottom so her husband may satisfy his own egotistic fancy, it is hard to take in. It simply does not wash.

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But Magdalen College School’s show at the Oxford Playhouse targets all those social, psychological, cynical and overdone interpretations of the play, reminding us that it might be an altogether different story.

Directed by Ms Pierce, Midsummer Night’s Dream underlines something important yet all too easily forgotten: the utter innocence of first love.

This take reminds the audience of their own youth, when the very word ‘love’ was too huge to be spoken out loud, ‘betrayal’ meant looking at someone else, and when desire was a new thing to be slowly and patiently explored with that variety of different experiences needed to create an adult personality.

It is idealised, but so is love when one is young. A theatrical triumph then, full of innocence and great charm.


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