“O, then, I see Queen Mab hath been with you.
She is the fairies’ midwife, and she comes
In shape no bigger than an agate-stone…”
(Mercutio, Romeo and Juliet, Act I scene IV)
Mab, an ancient fairy, travels the world and, as Mercutio describes, has been bringing dreams and nightmares to mortals for centuries. But she’s bored and unhappy, seeing humans as nothing more than “a pestilential scourge upon the Earth” and preferring to dole out nightmares that prey upon their deepest fears rather than bestowing positive dreams on their sleeping forms.
There are many lockdown and pandemic-themed dramas around, but likely none as charming as Danielle Pearson’s “Queen Mab”. The play cleverly links Shakespeare’s Mab to the present day through Freya, a teenager who is going through all the normal existential angst and confusions of that difficult age but amplified a thousand-fold by the anxieties of lockdown. On top of her own struggles, she’s witnessing her parents going through their own problems and dealing with a younger brother who refuses to do schoolwork. Their wifi is dodgy, homework is hard to do remotely, and there’s the constant worry that the pandemic might never end, potentially shattering Freya’s dreams for her future. When Mab visits Freya, they somehow strike up a friendship in which both learn a great deal from the other about human and immortal existence. Along the way, secrets are shared, mistakes are made and relationships are re-assessed. It’s not explained why Freya, out of the all the mortals on Earth, can interact with Mab – perhaps because there’s no answer, just as Mab doesn’t know what dreams are, even though they are the very essence of her work.
The language of the play is perfectly pitched, with Mab sharing her insights about the ancient world and the present day in a modern iambic pentameter, then reverting to current cadences when talking to Freya about boys, Swiss roll and the Great British Bake Off. It’s seamless and carries the audience effortlessly from Shakespeare’s day and the themes of Romeo and Juliet to the here and now.
Erica Flint is delightful as Mab, stalking lightly around and playing her flute to influence the sleeping humans’ dreams. Jo Patmore’s Freya grows convincingly from troubled teen to confident young woman with the help of her magical mentor. Both actors are accomplished musicians and singers, their voices blending beautifully in a final duet.
Staging any play outdoors in the UK is always a risk with the uncertain weather, but this outdoor venue is perfect even when there’s an unexpected June chill. Isobel Nicolson’s stage design is of a teenager’s bedroom full of discarded clothes, books strewn everywhere, alongside a garden that has a perfectly placed real tree stump. The area is surrounded by rose bushes, and the church’s clock chiming on the hour and birds chirping overhead add a lovely natural sound layer. As well as the two leads, additional characters appear as recorded voices, which shouldn’t work, but these feel reasonably well fleshed-out even though they are unseen.
With assured direction by Georgie Staight, “Queen Mab” provides a magical take on the dreams and nightmares of lockdown in a beautiful setting, leaving the audience with the uplifting feeling that maybe the immortals really are out there and that all will, eventually, be well.
Playing until the 26th June https://iristheatre.com/event/queen-mab/
Reviewer: Carole Gordon
Reviewed: 22nd June 2021
North West End UK Rating: ★★★★