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"The course of true love never did run smooth." A famous line from one of Shakespeare's most well-known and well-loved plays - and when Joe Hill-Gibbins is at the helm, you can be certain that the production won't be straightforward either.

Demetrius is betrothed to Hermia, but Hermia loves Lysander - and Helena is besotted with Demetrius. After being given an ultimatum by her father and the ruler of Athens, Hermia agrees to flee the city with Lysander; she doesn't count on Helena attempting to gain favour with Demetrius by letting slip their plans, which results in the pair giving chase through the woods.

At this point the real world clashes with a magical realm of fairies, leading to even greater confusion between the lovers. Add into that the group of am-dram actors rehearsing their play, and it really is a recipe for trouble.

Hill-Gibbins' aim with this version was to make it more of a nightmare than a dream. You can certainly see the potential for this in the play's themes, however it becomes more of a nightmare to sit and watch. Running at approximately two hours straight through, it is something of an endurance test. Yet paradoxically it feels too short, as it's done at such a pace that there is no room for character development; you are left feeling ambivalent about who ends up with whom and how it comes to pass.

Johannes Schütz's set is quite simple in design: the stage is covered in mud and there is a mirror in the backdrop. The programme notes seem to suggest that the mud is representative of the Elizabethan notion of humans interacting with fairies in between settlements and the open countryside, but the reason for the mirror is not at all clear - aside from it enabling the actors to spend far too much time with their backs to the audience and forcing you to look in the mirror to see their faces. The company remains onstage for the entirety of the performance, which seems unnecessarily gruelling and quite distracting.

It is a startlingly male cast, especially when you compare it with Emma Rice's 2016 production at the Globe; only four of the 14 actors are women. Given how different Hill-Gibbins appears to want the production to be, this is a rather conservative choice.

The lovers are by far the most energetic of the company, with Jemima Rooper (Hermia) flinging herself headlong into the mud very early in the piece, and John Dagleish (Lysander) proving to be quite hardy as he is anointed with the love juice rather violently by Lloyd Hutchinson's bewigged Puck. Aaron Heffernan is a ray of sunshine in a production that has been stripped bare of comedy; his turn as Flute playing Thisbe is a genuine laugh-out-loud moment, and it's a shame that it is all too brief.

If ever you needed proof that you can try too hard to be different, this production is it. There needs to be a careful balance between innovation and the text so that it still feels natural - Hill-Gibbins fails to meet that requirement here. There are some strong performances, but the show itself is underwhelming.

A Midsummer Night's Dream is at the Young Vic until 1 April

Read our interview with Leo Bill

Picture credit: Keith Pattison

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From This Author Debbie Gilpin