What an ass! Ghosts star takes on classic Shakespeare character

Playing Hamlet on stage is clearly daunting, and tackling King Lear night after night can take it out of an actor. But for anyone in search of a big Shakespearean challenge, how about convincing a live audience there is more than a funny name to laugh at about Bottom the Weaver?

It takes serious stagecraft to bring appropriately silly life to the character who ends up wearing the head of an ass in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Much of the burden of the comedy in this magical play sits on the shoulders of this guileless artisan, and a string of famous performers, from James Cagney on film to comedians in London’s West End, have had a go in the modern era.

Next to don the long furry ears, the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) reveals today, will be Mathew Baynton, the writer and actor most celebrated as a co-creator and star of the BBC’s hit sitcom Ghosts.

His television role as Thomas Thorne, the lovelorn fictional Regency poet, already links him to Midsummer Night’s Dream’s themes of unrequited love and the illusory nature of romantic obsession. “Imagine going through life and never having unrequited feelings for someone,” Baynton said this weekend. “I suppose people like that must exist, but I’m guessing most of us experience it at least once. I’m lucky to have been with the person I love for pretty much all of my adult life, but as a teenager I was ghosted by a girlfriend I thought I’d be with forever, and I still remember how much it hurt.

“It’s probably cathartic to laugh at the lovers making fools of themselves in Dream because we all know how love, or infatuation, can be like being under a spell. Lovesickness isn’t some metaphor – it’s a powerful, horrible, physical thing, and you’re helpless in the face of it.”

In Shakespeare’s play, where real and fairy worlds collide in an enchanted forest, the plot follows four young lovers and a daft group of local workmen, known as the “mechanicals”, who are putting on a play. Bottom, one of the would-be actors, becomes the butt of a magical prank set up by a sprite called Puck when the fairy queen, Titania, falls out with King Oberon.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream was the school play during my first year in secondary school,” recalled Baynton, who became a well-known TV face on the children’s show Horrible Histories and starred with James Corden in the comic thriller The Wrong Mans.

“As an impish little kid, I thought I would be perfect casting for Puck and I was so gutted to lose out to an older boy that I refused the offer to play one of the mechanicals instead. Then I watched the production and realised the mechanicals are really funny parts, and I really regretted it.”

The part of Bottom is “an absolute treat of a role. I have no preconceptions about how my Bottom will turn out,” the actor said, confessing he is proud to have resisted Bottom jokes for up to two minutes.

“I’m planning to go into rehearsals with an open mind and see what emerges. I’m a big fan of Hammed Animashaun, who played Bottom at the Bridge. I was annoyed I didn’t see that production but now I suppose I’m glad, as it can be quite hard to free your mind from the influence of another performer’s choices.”

Other stars to take the part in the past decade include David Walliams, who appeared opposite Sheridan Smith’s Titania in a West End production, and his former comedy partner Matt Lucas, who played the role to Maxine Peake’s Titania for the BBC. Dawn French was also cast as Bottom in 2001, while back in 1964 Benny Hill played him for the BBC.

Returning to the stage after a decade on television, Baynton will star at Stratford-upon-Avon this January in a production directed by Eleanor Rhode. By then, the actor will have entertained many this Christmas in the musical film Wonka, based on the characters in Roald Dahl’s novel Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. He plays rival sweet manufacturer Fickelgruber in a script that promises the “origin story” of Timothée Chalamet’s Willy Wonka.

Baynton, who plays Bottom until March, is also a writer, which means he sometimes has “to be picky about the acting jobs I take”.

“It’s such a blessing to be able to do both,” he adds, because it allows him some proper family life. “And they are a break from each other. Writing can be painfully difficult so it’s nice to be able to let Mr Shakespeare take care of the words for a bit.”

He does not plan to update the funny dialogue, as Stewart Lee did for Alison Peebles, who played the comic porter in the RSC’s last production of Macbeth. “I presume we’ll be sticking with the original text. The porter that Stewart Lee rewrote is quite a standalone bit, and there isn’t an equivalent I can think of in Dream,” he said.

“It’s amazing how much of Shakespeare’s writing stands the test of time, but there are references that can be completely lost on all but the scholars. There is a bit where Bottom riffs on the names of the fairies, which might’ve been hilarious at the time but it would be pointless trying to get laughs out of a modern audience with that material. I’m guessing we’ll cut rather than rewrite. Unless Stewart happens to be at a loose end!”