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November 03, 2011

A Midsummer Night's Dream (Filter) @ Curve, Leicester

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Filter’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream marks the company’s second foray into Shakespeare, following its sublime and irreverent Twelfth Night. The company specialise in a form of deconstructed theatre, treating performances as “gigs” where all the machinery of performance – instruments, sound boxes, stage management, cast – are on stage throughout, and the show responds to the energy of its audience with a rare bravery.

From the start, it became clear that the company were fortunate in the young, rowdy audience in the Studio at Curve in Leicester. Full of school parties with plenty to say for themselves, it responded instantly to the appearance of an Irish Peter Quince, who came forward to welcome everyone to the show and entered into banter with the crowd. Upon learning, in a whispered conversation with the stage manager, that “local boy: Sir Richard Attenborough was not, in fact, available to play Bottom this evening, he recruited a planted audience member to play Bottom, though not before an enthusiastic student had made his own play for the part, forcing the company to fall back on made-up insurance regulations to engineer the correct choice. From this moment, it was clear that audience interaction was to be encouraged and respected, and that the company were equal to the challenge of the unexpected.

The heavily edited script riffed on Shakespeare rather than followed, with much left out – the marriage framing was completely dropped from the final act, leaving Pyramus and Thisbe to be played purely for the sake of the Leicester audience, and Starveling and Stout were dropped altogether. Flute, Quince and Snug were the onstage band, and Bottom – played by an audience member who claimed to be a musician – became their lead vocalist, repeatedly breaking out of character to demand another screamed rock anthem. The band imagery was maintained in Ferdy Roberts’s Puck, imagined here as an aging roadie with grey t-shirt, beard, tool belt and walkie-talkie, over which Oberon communicated with him.

By casting the play as concert, the play itself was viewed as the serial mounting of shows, whether on the obvious level of the Mechanicals or in Puck and Oberon setting up Titania with Bottom or the lovers in conflict. The climactic scene, as the four lovers began warring, allowed Puck and Oberon to sit on a pair of camp seats, grab a beer and bread snacks each and watch the show, drawing laughs every time they turned their chairs for a better view.

To describe the jokes would rob them of much of their humour, but I have to note that an audience of fairly hardened teenagers showed no reservations as they literally cried with laughter. Jonathan Broadbent's Oberon in particular brought down the house. First appearing in a dressing gown, he threw it off to reveal a Superman costume underneath, which he supplemented with a manic evil laugh and childlike tantrums. This was a boy with power, playing with his walkie-talkie and thoroughly enjoying himself. To turn himself “invisible”, he made zapping noises with his hands and petulantly informed the audience he couldn’t be seen. He made his first exit by lying across a swivel chair and pretending to fly offstage, only for a loud crash to be heard. As the cast called after him to see if he was okay, he yelled back “I’m INVISIBLE!”. He wore a sling for the remainder of the play.

Childish references were put in everywhere. Lysander and Demetrius, after exiting for their duel, were reintroduced in the manner of arcade beat-em-up heroes, before proceeding to mime a game of Pong. Quince ordered Flute to play Thisbe as Vivian Leigh, and Hermia erected an instant tent for her luxurious night’s sleep. During the final quarrel, which saw the four young lovers race around the entire auditorium, Lysander and Demetrius began throwing bread at Hermia, which she threw back. As audience members began to be hit and started throwing it back, Puck and Oberon ran round passing out more bread until the entire theatre was engaged in a food fight, culminating in everyone throwing everything they had at Hermia.

I did have concern, however, about the cruelty implied in this episode. The enthusiasm with which not only the on-stage characters but also the audience were encouraged to throw bread at the wretched Hermia jarred with the generosity elsewhere. To make the most delighted and participatory moment of the play the physical abuse of the character, eventually knocked backwards into her tent, surely invited some form of internal critique or challenge to the audience, which was not forthcoming. To take the most severe stance, it seemed to condone the idea that the best way to deal with a woman asserting her own rights is to subject her to physical and verbal abuse until she shuts up and/or runs away. Despite the comic tone, this scene felt a little ugly, and drew my mind to the “Oh, not again” response of Theseus to Hippolyta storming out at the end of the first scene, and to the ease with which Helena succumbed to the altered Demetrius’ advances before changing her mind. As hysterical as the production was, a few too many of the laughs came at the expense of the women for my tastes.

The lovers were cast young and very sexual, with Helena allowing both Lysander and Demetrius to writhe with her on the floor for a while before realising that there were two men involved. There were a lot of teen ‘tudes, and the men in particular made themselves ridiculous as they gyrated to the music in their heads while wooing Helena. Theseus, Hippolyta and Egeus were played straight, in contrast to what followed; but the always-excellent Gemma Saunders had relatively little to do as Titania. Bottom had more impact. As the actor reading his script for the first half of the show, he inserted comments and judgements into the action, before coming into his own as he read the rehearsal lines. Re-entering as the donkey, there was no physical change in his appearance, but the rest of the cast used coconut shells and braying noises to add imagined donkey aspects to his gait and voice. Puck dangled a carrot for him, which he bit off a huge chunk of, and the rest of the cast began corpsing as he patiently munched on his carrot with an apologetic shrug to the audience before resuming.

The delight of unexpected moments such as this was in how shared they were with the audience. The back and forth within the auditorium was such that when, for example, Quince took the audience request of “Do it as a Gothic Horror” by performing the Prologue in the style of Bela Lugosi, one could no longer tell whether it was a genuine request or a plant. Bottom’s finale as Pyramus was initially played surprisingly straight, but concluded with an eccentric death scene. He lay on the floor, and then screamed at the band when they began playing the exit music. Lying back down, the entire production stopped, allowing the audience to become increasingly hysterical. After a minute or so, members of the audience began cat-calling, including the teen from the start shouting out “I bet you wish I’d done it now”. Pyramus’s still death lasted a seeming eternity, until he finally jumped up and led the cast in a final number.

The standing ovation was testament to how expertly this production addressed its audience. Audience and cast boosted each other’s energy levels, creating a contract of mutual challenge that invested the entire auditorium in the performance. Despite my concerns about the bullying atmosphere of certain moment, this was an absolute triumph.

August 17, 2009

Titania's Dream

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The Rose have made an early start advertising what is, no doubt, going to be the first sure-fire hot sell of 2010. Judi Dench is starring as Titania in their new production of A Midsummer Night's Dream, directed by Peter Hall.

Dream is a heavily ensemble drama. If there's a leading role, it's arguably Puck (who drives the action forward) or Bottom (the most lines, and the most iconic moments). So I'm intrigued to see what putting a big name into the mix is going to do to the balance of the play. Is Titania, indeed, going to become the most important character in the play? The press release suggests that they will be exploring the role as a "portrait" of Elizabeth I, which sounds both interesting and alarming in the same breath: will this be of interest, or relevance, to a contemporary audience? How much straining does the play require in order to emphasise this role in that way? And, most importantly, will the rest of the play be subsumed by this conceit?

My experience of Peter Hall's direction in the last few years amounts to one stinker and one intelligent, if a little dull, production. My experience of Judi Dench, on the other hand, amounts to a single show, Merry Wives: The Musical, in which as Mistress Quickly she coincidentally donned an Elizabeth I costume in deliberate pastiche of her Oscar-winning turn in Shakespeare in Love. For her to be turning another non-leading role into an Elizabeth I figure seems a little peculiar!

Anyway, it's a promising production of a perennial favourite, with a big-name director and star actor on the billboards. It'll be a deserved sell-out for the Rose long before it opens. I'm looking forward to it, and just hope it fulfills its promise.

June 05, 2009

A Midsummer Night's Dream (WUDS) @ Warwick Arts Centre Studio

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June has only just begun, and already I've seen my second Dream of the year. I admit, I'm always a little bit sceptic when entering an auditorium for another production of this play; it's so over-familiar and over-produced, matched probably only by Romeo for the amount of workaday productions trotted out annually, that I find myself demanding justification for yet another revival. Unlike Romeo, however, my experience of the Dream is that it tends to resist bad production- even the most uninventive or unoriginal productions I've been to have still managed to entertain.

Warwick University Drama Society, though, refused to settle for mediocrity with their new production. This Dream was dominated by the untamed, wild spirit of its fairy world, a chaotic and animalistic passion that drove events forward at high speed and maximum volume. Yet this was by no means a free-for-all: the performers and choreographers demonstrated tremendous discipline and technical ability in unleashing what looked like all-out carnage but was actually carefully planned for maximum effect.

Borrowing a device from last year's student production of The Tempst, Puck was played simultaneously by five different actors, loosely embodying different aspects of the fairy's character: the permanently-grinning Soraya Nabipour, for example, took on the moments of fast activity, pounding her feet eagerly on the floor as she prepared to launch her flights; while Annabel Betts, weighed down by an enormous rucksack, took on a quieter and more inquisitive role. Puck was best, though, as a collective, the five actors working together for greater effect. The mental level and attitude of the fairies was pitched somewhere between children and animals; the Pucks picked fleas off each other and scratched each others' heads, and reacted with fear to the persecutions of Titania's fairies, huddling together for comfort. Titania's fairies were also five in number, allowing for what were effectively showdowns between the two groups, accompanied by drumming and dancing. The asides and character moments among these ten were too numerous to attempt detail; characters rolled across their fellows' backs, built pyramids, picked at scenery, broke into unexpected song, slithered or jumped across the stage and teased each other. The overall effect was more important than the detail; the kids had taken over the playground, and the fairies captured the excitement, humour and chaos unleashed when power and childishness are given free rein.

Over this presided Kate Richards' Titania and Gwilym Lawrence's Oberon. Titania was a snarling animal of a fairy queen, dominant and instinctive whether pawing Bottom or intimidating Oberon. Oberon, by contrast, was unexpectedly childish, a meek and high-pitched simpleton with a sing-song voice who was easily cowed by Titania and her stronger servants. Lawrence's performance brought out a great deal from the role, making his request for the Indian boy not tyrannical but curious, and his subsequent actions were borne out of petulant retribution. A particular amusing but telling action saw Oberon and the Pucks fascinated, almost hypnotised, by the necklace of the Boy's mother which Titania wore around her neck, following it with their eyes and swaying in unison. The antics and conflicts were occasioned by childish conceptions of possession and greed, innocent yet ingrained. It also went some way to explaining the mistakes made with the love-in-idleness; the fairies were hopelessly out of their depth in their attempts to interfere, thus increasing the comedy of the crossed wires.

The flower itself was a camera with extended flash gun, accompanied by a supernatually huge flash effect as the pictures of the sleeping lovers were taken. The fascination of the fairies with the technology was a locating factor for a production which set itself (judging by the music and mortal costumes) in the 50s, at a period when rock n' roll was gradually taking over from swing ballads. The walls of the studio were decorated in advertising cards and postcards of Athens, while the set itself was, on entry, set as a rehearsal space-cum-workroom for the Mechanicals' production. With brooms acting as microphones, the six workers sang along to old records, immediately giving a nostalgic atmosphere to the setting.

The Mechanicals were generally excellent, and extremely amusing. Sam Maynard's Bottom was effusive and over-confident, given to fixed dramatic gestures (his 'lover' and 'tyrant' were identical), yet good-natured with it. His suggestions were greeted with increasing annoyance by Tim Kaufmann's Quince, while Tom Dale's Snug drew immediate audience sympathy with his meek voice and clear terror of Bottom's roaring. Briony Rawle was also excellent as Flute, a blokish lass who had to be continually reminded to raise her voice. The final performance of "Pyramus" was suitably riotous. Quince began his Prologue terrified, but grew in confidence until he was acting out the entire play with exaggerated gestures; Beth O'Sullivan's Starveling donned a hat with foliage, lamp and toy puppy attached, and mistakenly claimed that her thorn-bush was "my bush"; Laura Cassells' simple-minded Snout began each of her speeches with "erm, erm, erm" and delivered them with a stupid grin; Bottom forgot his lines regarding the chink, prompting his fellows to remind him with various obscene gestures; Snug and Flute managed to hurt each other during their "confrontation"; and Flute, who had begun acting properly while bent over Pyramus' 'body', grew so tired with the repeated reminders to pitch her voice higher that she rushed through her final lines in a second and died ceremoniously, falling so heavily across Bottom that she had to be physically thrown off him as he recovered.

Watching this were the nobles, who sat in the audience for the performance. Oberon and Titania were doubled with Theseus and Hippolyta, whose positions were reversed. In the play's opening moments, the newly-captured Hippolyta was seated under a bright spotlight as Theseus paced around her, positioning her in what he considered to be the most attractive positions. Her resentment and hatred of him were clear throughout the first scene, but appeared to have been resolved by the hunting party. Once married, however, Theseus became boorish; testy and drunk on wine, he provided fodder for laughter for Hippolyta and the lovers, but Hippolyta grew increasingly tired with his slurred remarks and insults, eventually escorting him off to bed.

The aspect of the production which worked least well was the lovers. Amy Tobin, playing Hermia, was a good two heads shorter than the others, allowing for some fun physical comedy, particularly as she beat up the two tall men, and she was by far the best of the group. In a reversal of the RSC's recent clothing conventions, Stewart Clarke's Lysander was formally suited and clearly the better-kept man, while Matt Goad's Demetrius wore leather jacket and slicked back hair, with which he was more concerned than his marital rights. While the production clearly tried to position Demetrius as having a bit of edge, Goad's softly-spoken performance failed to convey any real sense of threat. Anna Burnell's Helena, meanwhile, was posh, robotic in movements and motivated primarily by a rather pathetic petulance. While presumably played this way deliberately, it meant that this was a particularly unappealing Helena, severely limiting audience sympathy for the character; her petulance at her perceived mistreatment bordered on arrogance, the spoiled girl reacting badly to not being loved.

The lovers, however, all got better once both men were under the flower's spell. Lysander and Demetrius engaged in some very amusing slapstick comedy as the two tried to prevent each other from reaching Helena, involving some ludicrous wrestling positions. Even Helena grew more interesting as her desperation grew, her poise shattered as she stood on a platform attempting to keep out of the mens' reach. However, the production's focus on the supernatural characters came at the expense of the lovers; as well as rendering their story less interesting by comparison, the multiple crawling characters distracted somewhat from the actual plot when the two shared the stage at the same time. In this the performances of the lovers didn't help: too often, lines were rushed or babbled, the rhythm kept but the sense lost, particularly at the close of scenes.

Despite these final complaints, though, this was a riotous and thoroughly entertaining production that left me exhausted - there was so much going on, in the best possible sense, that any attempt to take it all in was doomed to failure. Rich, very funny and packed full of energy, the Dream continued to be justified in performance.

February 01, 2009

A Midsummer Night's Dream (Propeller) @ Liverpool Playhouse

It makes a pleasing change to see a Dream during a hugely cold spell at the end of January, as opposed to in sweltering heat - which suggests to me a production that actually has something interesting to do with the play, rather than rolling it out to fill a quiet summer slot. This, the second half of Propeller's current touring double-bill, is a revival of a production from a couple of years back, and it's magical.

Magical in the literal sense of the word, for at the centre of the production stood a disappearing cabinet, through which Puck and Bottom both appeared and disappeared at various points. The idea of conjuring fitted a design which conflated several elements of late Victorian/early 20th century entertainment culture. Lysander, bizarrely, appeared in vampire cape and ruffs, Puck's ruby slippers and striped stockings referenced the Wicked Witch of the East while Theseus was clad in top hat and tails. In doing so, Propeller lovingly evoked the golden age of this production, the proscenium arch stage spectacular which the company subverted in their physical and hysterically irreverent style.

A white set, walled on three sides, couldn't help but evoke Brook, but Michael Pavelka's eye for detail led to some lovely touches, such as a row of suspended chairs that provided a gallery level for actors to crawl along, culminating at either end in the white, carved-wood high thrones from which Titania and Oberon tossed defiance at one another. Mostly, though, the plain set acted as a playground for the actors, with glockenspiels set into the wall on either side for live music and hidden areas behind the walls for sudden emergences.

Events were presided over by Jon Trenchard's sprightly Puck. Giggling and running around in tights and tutu, this was a refreshingly childish Puck, joyful and mischievous. One of the production's key scenes came as Puck emerged from the massed bodies of the other cast members, dressed in white to collectively speak the lines of the First Fairy. Puck toyed with the group, who linked together to create large shapes, moving and breathing as one, some blowing down harmonicas (used throughout the production to provide underscore, usually effective but occasionally annoying as they cut across dialogue), while Puck ran about, allowed himself to be carried on their backs and finally reduced them to giggling on the floor as he tickled them all. With the whole company working together to bring life and interest to even this short exchange, the tone was set for an ensemble production that, as with yesterday's Merchant, prioritised the overall effect over any individual performances.

One complaint to quickly mention, however, was the bizarreness of some of the doubling. While it was wonderful to see the excellent Richard Frame doing great things with both Hermia and Snug, this led to an unnecessary amount of running off stage before the end of scenes in order to do costume changes, and made for an unsymmetrical final scene with Hermia inexplicably disappearing from the court group before the Mechanicals' play. Also awkward was Chris Myles' doubling of Egeus and Quince. As Myles was in 'Quince' costume immediately before "Pyramus and Thisbe", this meant that it was Quince who came on in order to give Theseus the list of entertainments, nervous and smiling gormlessly. His nervousness struck him silent, causing Theseus to read out the list of entertainments (why would Quince be providing the list of all the other possibilities), and then Hippolyta to tell Thesesus that she had seen the play and it was 'nothing' - entirely out of character for the hitherto kindly Hippolyta, and logically nonsensical - why would the queen have already seen the play being provided for her wedding entertainment? Why not have simply used one of the spare actors to come on as Philostrate for that one scene? These doubling problems weren't crippling, but seemed to create a rather unnecessary amount of work in the redistribution of lines and business.

Small gripes, though, in such a rich production. Frame, in particular, was fantastic in both parts. As Snug/Lion he drew laughs from his mewing roars and his general lack of intelligence (plus a costume with "I'm not a lion" painted across the back). As Hermia, however, he was a revelation. Gently spoken and with some comically feminine giggles, this Hermia was girly and slightly spoiled, waving Lysander away from her 'bed' magesterially. However, once riled by Hermia's "puppet", she was a terror. Frame dropped the affected feminine voice as she asked "How low am I?!", reverting to an undisguisedly male growl of anger. All girlish pretensions were cast aside and suddenly the physically imposing hard man was all present, cricking 'her' neck and lunging after Helena. Lysander and Demetrius needed all their strength to restrain Hermia, making for some wonderful physical comedy as the four lovers disputed.

The other lovers provided similarly good value. Babou Ceesay's tall and rather inelegant Helena was ruthless in her pursuit of Demetrius, particularly in one moment where she broke down in pitiful tears, causing him to draw near, before she suddenly leapt up and wrapped herself around him. The two were later found crawling across the high row of suspended chairs, Demetrius increasingly panicked at his inability to escape. Demetrius and Lysander, meanwhile, were both funny under their enchantments, bringing out the trite poetry of love and slapping at each other in a distinctly feminine spat - a comic contrast to the raging rhino unleashed in Hermia. Yet there were shades of darkness, such as in Lysander's angry and spontaneous punching of Hermia as she clung to him, knocking her to the floor and raising a gasp.

While the fairies were rarely off stage, playing various exotic instruments to complement the action, they took less of an active role in events than in some other recent productions. Yet, when part of the action, they were always entertaining. Titania's retinue of four extremely camp retainers, for example, pawed over Bottom, taking orgasmic delight in the prospect of scratching his ears. Oberon and Titania themselves were regal, particularly Richard Dempsey's austere Titania whose presence was commanding, her air of authority only being shed to any extent when entwined with Bob Barrett's Bottom. The indignity of her situation was, therefore, all the more comic- a prolonged fart from Bottom as the two went to sleep was greeted with an ecstatic "Oh, how I love thee!"

Finally, the Mechanicals were well-performed, bringing out individual idiosyncracies in all of them. Trenchard, doubling as Starveling, was a stand-out during "Pyramus". An egoist, he resented his minor part holding up a lantern, and grew increasingly irritated as the performance dragged on and his toy dog was repeatedly stamped on. Finally, as Bottom ordered him to "take your flight", he snapped, screaming "Fine! I'm never working with you amateurs again!" and stormed offstage, causing Bottom and Quince to lose their places for quite some time as they wondered what was wrong with him. John Dougall, as a full-bearded Flute, minced entertainingly, and Barrett exaggerated Bottom's Pyramus even further than the text called for, including a priceless moment as he tried to remember his lines and re-ran through his entire part until he got to the line he needed. The hysterics of the on-stage audience were matched by those of the Liverpool crowd.

This Dream did its work effectively and entertainingly, providing an inventive and consistently funny evening that made the play feel fresh once more. While not a revolutionary production, the skill and intelligence of the company was obvious in their grasp of simple building blocks so often ignored by others - an eye and ear for a good joke, generous ensemble playing and a genuine enjoyment of language. A high benchmark is already set for the year.

October 06, 2008

Play Without a Title @ The CAPITAL Centre: Responses

Despite having worked alongside the Artistic Director of Fail Better productions for about a year, it's perhaps surprising that this is the first production I've seen by that company. Play Without a Title, however, is special for a number of reasons. It combines the professional experience of the company with an all-student acting company (as well as students filling various creative and technical roles). It's the world premiere of a new translation of Lorca's play by academic David Johnston. And, it's a rare performance of an unfinished play, the first act of an experimental and exciting piece by the Spanish master. It's also tremendous.

Clocking in at about fifty minutes, Play Without a Title was an intense experience. Nomi Everall's spectacular set filled the tiny studio space of the CAPITAL Centre, an impressive self-contained set that created a theatre auditorium on one side, a backstage area on the other and a grey 'stage' separating the two. Each space had its own distinct atmosphere, carefully separated from the others. The auditorium gradually filled with formally dressed couples, tapping their feet, finding their seats, hanging their coats up, all in a highly comedic fashion. The backstage area, meanwhile, was an Aladdin's Cave of props and costumes, in which two actors appeared moving in slow-motion, tentatively trying on costumes and transforming themselves into the characters of A Midsummer Night's Dream whom they were playing. The stage, meanwhile, was plain and bare (a grey area, if you will), a place of pronouncements, or 'sermons'. Perhaps paradoxically, this space was dominated by the Director, the central 'actor' of Lorca's play, who took to the stage in an effort to subvert the usual expectations of the theatre's set-up. Bridging the two worlds on either side of him, the Director's rhetoric and force drove the play's action as he called for a rethink about the essence of what we call 'theatre'.

The play's most rivetting aspects turned on the debate of what constituted theatre and real life, and the differences between them. In this debate, no-one could ever be 'right'. The Director used horrific examples from real life to illustrate what he considered to be 'truth', but yet recoiled from other examples when used against him. One audience member announced he was leaving the theatre at the mention of the concept of a 'real' 'truth', but his wife only joined him when forced to confront a specific example. In a lovely piece of doubling (though whether it is called for by the script I don't know), the two who left reappeared as actors in the backstage area, making themselves up and changing into theatrical characters. This corresponded effectively with the comments of the Leading Lady to the Director, in which she cried out against the ugliness of real life, the inability of man to deal with it for more than a moment before having to hide again; the reappearance of audience members who had run back to the 'safety' of real life in the backstage world of the theatre provided an apt visual metaphor.

Play Without a Title flyer

The confrontation between on- and off-stage allowed for some startling moments of drama. The Director directly challenged his audience members, and part of the fascination came from watching how they responded and the points at which they were finally provoked into responding. The forces which held them in their seats even as they were being told to leave where almost tangible, with Lorca's text bringing to life the unwritten rules of the theatre, exploiting the attitude of passive activity (or active passivity) in which audiences expect to enjoy the theatre. The two couples - one of whom reacted and left, the other of whom stayed to watch in quiet amusement - demonstrated two very different approaches to theatregoing that enraged the Director in different ways.

In contrast, the Leading Lady spoke for the virtues of disguise in theatre as an actress who was permanently in one character or another. Despite the Director's initial disdain for her, her power was overwhelming, unbalancing his arguments and throwing him into confusion with her near-unshakable confidence. It was this confidence, and this obstinant reliance on the worlds she created for herself rather than the real world, that led to the play's funniest and most moving moment - as the theatre began to burn and an audience member cried for her children, the Leading Lady scolded her for 'saying it so badly', instructing her on how to enact her grief more effectively. Her outlook was simultaneously repulsive and sorely tempting, a complete and total retreat from the banality/security of real life.

As the play drew to its climax, and rebellion outside the theatre threatened the safety of all inside, the two worlds collapsed together. The two halves of the stage slid together in a crash, eliminating the 'stage' and merging the backstage world with the auditorium. Actresses dressed as fairies spilled into the aisles where a shot revolutionary was dying, addressing each other by their fairy names. With both worlds threatened at the same time, the debates about the danger and fears of real life took on an urgent dimension, with the Director calling for the revolutionaries to be welcomed into the theatre while an audience member took matters into his own hands and shot the first man through the door. As fear and flames engulfed the stage, the play crashed to its end, the Leading Lady still calling for "My Lorenzo..."

Jonathan Heron's production urgently calls for reappraisal of this buried gem, an important and vital treatise on the dynamics between theatre and life, stage and auditorium, perrformer and audience. Thought-provoking, moving and in places extremely funny, the play demands to be almost immediately watched again, and the publication of Johnston's translation next month will hopefully invite further productions. For now, though, this is an excellent and evocative piece that showcases a superb student cast and pushes the technical boundaries of the CAPITAL Centre's space. Don't even bother trying for tickets, the run is booked solid.

August 22, 2008

A Midsummer Night's Dream @ The Courtyard Theatre

Considering the RSC's fondness for revivals (cf the recent Henry VI/Richard III cycle and the touring The Comedy of Errors), it's perhaps surprising that this is the first time I've been to one that I saw first time round. Greg Doran's A Midsummer Night's Dream was one of the better productions of the 2005 Comedies Season, and was also my first introduction to several of the actors I'd be increasingly impressed by in subsequent appearances: Jonathan Slinger, Jamie Ballard, Paul Chahidi, Trystan Gravelle and Miles Richardson, to name a few. I was more than pleased, therefore, to hear that the production was returning for the 2008 summer season, re-cast and re-imagined for the Courtyard's thrust stage. Dreams are too plentiful, but I had no reservations about revisiting one I had enjoyed so much.

Did it live up to expectations? Well, yes and no. Try as I might to judge the production on its own merits, I couldn't help but compare the company to the original cast and several performances just didn't grab me in the way their predecessors did. Likewise, the new design for the forest (bare mirrors) was, I felt, less interesting than the junkyard of the original, not least because the old design made sense of the fairies' matching costumes. And of course, any comedy always suffers when you know the jokes - the Pyramus and Thisbe sequence, which had me crying with laughter in 2005, here only raised a smile. So, for that reason, I'm going to attempt to avoid comparisons in this blog, because while I may not have enjoyed it as much as the original, this was still on its own merits a perfectly good production which was consistently entertaining and full of interest.

The set, a simple mirrored wall covering the entire upstage area, was used to excellent effect by the lighting designer. A large spherical moon hung high above the stage, moving slowly downstage as the first half progressed, while different patterns of light and shadow indicated the passage of time on the wall, going from summery sunset to the pale full moon. This back wall also allowed for effective use of silhouette; fairies appeared behind the wall playing with bubbles as Titania slept, before being scattered by the vastly oversized shadow of Oberon. Other spectacular effects were achieved through a network of bulbs above the stage that were lowered at various points, including the end of the first half, to create a lattice of floating lights.

The fairies were the most entertaining part of the production, a dishevelled chorus who haunted the lovers and mechanicals throughout their time in the forest. Giggling and playing like naughty children, they took pleasure in cruelly echoing the terrified squeals of Hermia as she called for "Lysander?" and in chasing the Mechanicals with "animals" created out of their own tools and props. One particularly funny - and also touching - moment saw the exhausted Hermia walk onstage, only to be repeatedly picked up and placed back where she had entered, forever walking but not getting anywhere. The fairies also acted throughout as puppeteers, controlling both the Indian Boy (a model created by the Little Angel theatre) and small models of themselves with oversized heads, who they made 'fly' around Bottom's head as he reclined. Always involved and watching, the physical inventiveness with which they enhanced the various scenes between the lovers was always welcome, whether rifling through Lysander and Hermia's suitcases, creating branches with their arms that the young people had to fight through or simply acting as an onstage audience and "oohing" and "awwing" appropriately.

The lovers themselves were good value too. Edward Bennett, fresh from his Ian Charleson nomination for playing Roderigo in the Donmar's Othello, particularly shone as a public schoolboy caricature, pathetic and sneering, eventually running away from Helena after she bested him in a tussle. Kathryn Drysdale was also very funny as Hermia, tiny but all-powerful as she bossed Lysander about, flounced around the stage and generally ruled the roost. As events became more tangled, the temper started to erupt, culminating in a wonderful moment as Helena accidentally let slip the word "puppet", immediately retracting it as she realised the effect it would have. Lysander and Demetrius both gasped, and then backed away whistling as Hermia's rage built to boiling point.  It took both men to restrain her in her rage, and even then they struggled. Tom Davey and Natalie Walter made up the quartet, Davey playing Lysander as a layabout student type in casual clothes (a nice contrast to the well-dressed Demetrius, giving a sense of why Egeus preferred the latter). Walter, meanwhile, made for a flappy and very amusing Helena who was particularly good with the physical side, all arms and legs as she tried to protect herself from Hermia.

The weakest parts of this production came in the Mechanicals scenes, though these were far from awful. Ryan Gage was a very good Flute, good-humoured and natural in his transition from indignation at playing a woman to making a go of it with a smile. He shone in the Pyramus and Thisbe scenes, particularly as Thisbe found Pyramus dead. Here, the playlet shifted a gear from high farce, with Flute suddenly discovering his acting chops and delivering the final lines beautifully as the rest of the Mechanicals peered out from behind the curtain in astonishment. However, I was quite disappointed with Joe Dixon as Bottom. Dixon, who was an excellent Oberon in the original production, here seemed horribly miscast. While there were occasional flashes of comedy (including a very funny dance scene after getting his ass's head where he moonwalked and did the robot), the jokes in the text itself were lost in uninspired delivery. Too often he relied on silly noises, such as a series of "whooshes" interspersing his "Die, die, die, die, die" finale, or on his Brummie accent to get the laughs.

The Pyramus and Thisbe finale itself was excellent. The jokes stolen by the Globe production. involving the chink in the wall being between Snout's legs, were here extremely well done and rapturously received by an hysterical audience (the references to 'stones' and 'holes' seeming so obvious when played in this way that one can only assume Shakespeare put them there deliberately). I'll break my rule and make one comparison: the exuberance of Paul Chahidi was sorely missed in the role of Quince, as Roderick Smith didn't get nearly enough mileage out of it. After the prologue, he stripped down to black tights, rolled acrobatically across the floor and presented himself as an action figure called "Truth". It's a great interpretation of the role, but Smith's delivery was muted, meaning the ridiculousness of the part was overshadowed by the rest of the activity. However, Ricky Champ almost stole the show as Snout, funniest in a moment when the portable stage on which the Mechanicals were performing was removed to reveal him agonising to Quince over his performance.

Peter de Jersey and Andrea Harris were decent as Oberon and Titania, de Jersey making a particularly effective entrance in the midst of dry ice, sweeping up on a mobile platform to appear as if from nowhere. Their reunion, sealed as they both flew off into the flies, was suitably magical, and Harris was particularly good when bewitched, cooing over Bottom almost deliriously. Oberon was less powerful than might have been expected (save the spectacular shadow scene), more an active meddler than a tyrant. He was ably assisted by Mark Hadfield's Puck, who turned up in a pile of rags at the start and dominated the stage for much of the play. He adopted some interesting horsey mannerisms to go with the fawn-elements of his costume (woolly legs and hooves), and it was fun to see a Puck more middle-aged and world-weary than most, trudging around as he did his master's bidding, yet still getting occasionally excited at the folly of the mortals he taunted so.

So, a mixed bag. In many ways, I wish I'd seen this without seeing the original production, as I think I would have enjoyed it far more. However, the company have done a lot of excellent work, and particularly between the lovers and the fairies this remains one of the best Dreams I've ever seen. It was also a tantalising first glimpse of the company who are also performing Hamlet and Love's Labour's Lost, and it should be far more fascinating to see them playing parts that they've created from scratch, rather than trying to fit into an old company's shoes.

July 03, 2008

Regional Schools Celebration @ The Courtyard Theatre

On Monday, the Courtyard Theatre hosted the Regional Schools Celebration, a culmination of sorts of the first phase of the RSC's Stand Up for Shakespeare campaign. Featuring a full programme of nine 25 minute playlets by school groups ranging from primary to 6th form, interspersed with awards ceremonies and talking heads, the event was a large-scale public celebration of the work the RSC are doing in schools across the country.

Stand Up for Shakespeare

I wasn't going to write a blog about this event, much less a review, as I thought it would be inappropriate given the nature of the event. However, I haven't been able to get some of the playlets out of my head. The ideas and work that went into them were in several cases extremely interesting, and the work deserved attention (as Michael Coveneyagrees on his blog). Sadly I was only able to stay for the morning, but I thought I would include a breakdown of what I saw as, particularly when you consider the age of the kids, there was stuff here that I would really like to remember.

The day itself was compered by Hardeep Singh Kohli, with contributions in the morning from both Michael Boyd and Michelle Gomez - a nice gesture, having the Artistic Director and current leading actor in attendance. Hardeep himself did a solid job of hosting, with a whole selection of terrible puns that were primarily designed to cover the changes between casts. Nonetheless, he seemed to have a genuine enthusiasm for the event, and the atmosphere in the Courtyard was good throughout.

Hardeep Singh Kohli
Hardeep Singh Kohli

Julius Caesar by Queen's Park Primary, West Kilburn, London

The first show began with the theatre being plunged into darkness. A loud epic soundtrack boomed out, while the children tiptoed onto the stage from various sides, shining torches in their faces and onto the audience before gathering in the centre and becoming the conspirators of Caesar. Seeing school drama benefit from the technical capabilities of the RSC's main house was one of the pleasures of the day, though this was the only production to achieve such a startling effect from it. The production tapped into ideas both of surveillance and of street violence; opening with the conspirators and the murder, two 'newsreaders' (stood on the side balconies) then took over the reporting of the event through a series of news-style flashbacks and vox pops with dissatisfied Romans. A focus on the gullible doggedness of the crowd to believe whoever was talking made the orations scene particularly interesting, the crowd caring passionately about the last thing that was spoken. To this end, the playlet captured this school's fascination with the power of propaganda, which ultimately destroyed everyone. A fascinating insight into the contemporary resonances which the staff and students had found in the play, and also a particularly impressive performance from the young girl playing Brutus. Throughout the day I was impressed at how well the young people held the Courtyard stage, but Brutus in this play was superb, clear and powerful all the way.

Henry V - In Love and War by Fred Longworth School, Atherton, Manchester

The most sophisticated of the five plays, and practically deserving of a full review of its own. Fred Longworth's retelling of Henry V was an innovative and fascinating one that brought several original ideas to the text. It had been trimmed down from an hour long, but in this 25 minute version we caught a glimpse of the excellent work that had gone into it. Taking a slant that focussed on issues of love and marriage, this production centred Katherine, playing her scenes almost in full. Adding in dialogue from Romeo and Juliet, a new narrative was created that saw the King of France commanding his daughter to prepare for marriage with Henry in case of defeat, much to her disgust and panic. To this end, in a genius scene, her French lesson became a comically violent preparation, with her miming how she was going to use her fingers, nails and 'bilbows' to punch, scratch, poke and gut her 'enemy'. In the final scene, in another excellent decision, Henry mixed Shakespearean dialogue with contemporary phrases to emphasise the 'plainness' of his speech, eventually winning her over through her directness. The Chorus was played by three young actresses who were all extremely articulate verse-speakers, splitting the lines between them and throwing a tennis ball to various actors in order to start the scenes. I've heard good Choruses before, but for some reason the strong Manc accents worked perfectly with the verse, and were definitely the day's best vocal performances. I have no hesitation in saying that, even as abbreviated as it was, this was better than some of, say, the drama school performances in the Complete Works. Excellent work.

Romeo and Juliet - Friendship Never Dies by Churchill Gardens Primary, Westminster, London

This version of Romeo, performed by a group of very young children, drew its power from the knowledge that the children go to school in a particularly rough part of East London (according to Hardeep, anyway) that suffers badly from knife and gang culture. Almost entirely ignoring the romance aspects of the play, this production stripped Romeo down to its streetfighting, finding in it a message about retribution and the culture of respect that the children, despite their age, clearly knew all too well. Here, all the children came on stage to shout the play's early lines at each other in staged violence, while at the Capulet's Ball they danced to modern R&B (the guest list that Peter carried included such names as Beyonce and Rhiannon). After the ball, though, the narrative interestingly switched to Tybalt, stewing in his bedroom at the insult and disrespect that Romeo had paid him by coming to the party. Other actors voiced his thoughts while he paced back and forth. The play then skipped forward to the climactic duel, with Tybalt killing Mercutio and Romeo Tybalt, with plenty of focus on the young Romeo's decision to take his knife and continue the cycle of violence. The play's closing image, then, was of the Prince ordering Romeo to be dragged off, screaming, to prison while Juliet tried to follow him and was held back. No tragic deaths here, simply the inevitable - and very modern - consequences of a life of violence. Shocking in its bleakness and in the young children's grasp of matters of life and death, this was both disturbing and vital, Shakespeare used for exploring issues of monumental impact.

Mr Mac and the Ruler Army by Milton Abbot Primary, Devon

The final two productions didn't have the same impact, but were still entertaining and provided good comedy value. Milton Abbot School translated Macbeth to a primary school, "Dunsin Lane", with Mr. Duncan as the Headmaster, Mr. Mack and Mrs. Banks as teachers and a chorus of garishly made-up dinnerladies as the witches. The children obviously had great fun contemporising the play, with Duncan's murder becoming his expulsion for helping children cheat (deviously engineered by Mack), while Mack's tyranny was shown through his introduction of a 12 hour schoolday and no playtime. The contemporising eventually fell apart (Mr. Duff and Mr. Mack settled their differences through, erm, a sword fight!),  but it remained an entertaining and often funny take on Macbeth.

Supernatural in Shakespeare by Fred Nicholson School, Norfolk

By far the most bizarre of the morning's productions, Fred Nicholson (a school with a particular focus on students with special needs) took the Mechanicals of A Midsummer Night's Dream and brought them onto the Jeremy Kyle Show in an effort to resolve the differences and squabbles caused by Bottom always taking the best parts for himself. This was a highly unusual idea, of course, but one which allowed them to explore ideas of bullying in a contemporary context. Heavily reliant on audience participation, the boys did a good job of encouraging audience participation through cheering and booing. Through the middle of this skipped Puck, who played tricks on the young actors throughout. Regardless of the content, it was clear that a great deal of work and creative thought had gone into this playlet and, as with all the groups performing, the students seemed to have developed themselves through the act of rehearsing and performing as well as learning their Shakespeare, and that was the most important thing.

I couldn't stay for the afternoon, but I was sorry to leave. I won't lie, I expected that the day would be something of a chore, but I was very pleased to be proved wrong. The work done by the young people was eminently watchable and I was surprised at how enjoyable the day was. I'm not the right person to comment on the RSC's education strategy, on the methodologies being employed or the manifesto that "Stand Up for Shakespeare" presents, but the day showed a large group of children who had got a great deal out of exploring Shakespeare practically, and that can't be bad.

June 26, 2008

A Midsummer Night's Dream @ Tocil Field, University of Warwick

Footsbarn Theatre are a theatre troupe in the most traditional sense, touring in caravans and performing in their own 'Big Top'-style tent. Formed in Cornwall in the 1970s, though now based in France, the company is truly international, representing a wide range of performance styles, languages and visual symbols. Their current carnivalesque production of A Midsummer Night's Dream has been touring the world on and off for many years, with actors coming and going, and this year marks a long-awaited return to England.

The tent itself crammed a hugely enthusiastic audience into rows of tiered wooden benches arranged on three sides around a thrust area. A few lucky children sat in the centre of this area, while actors periodically paraded around them. The main stage area was a raised rocky platform, from which a small bridge led to a bandstand. A tree stood centrally at the back of the stage area, all made to look deliberately cartoon-like. This intimate space was used to great effect throughout a performance that relied heavily on the company's immediate relationship with the audience, particularly with the many children present.

From the start, masked figures moved about, waving at the audience and collecting toadstools and similar. These fairies, with distorted smiling masks, giggled and gurgled unintelligibly, combining images from European folklore with the aesthetics of the commedia dell'arte. Always benign, the masks gave an excellent sense of 'the other' which, combined with the actors' innovative ways of moving, some making themselves only two feet tall while others skipped about, gave the woodland scenes a tangible magic. Masks were used among the rest of the characters also - Egeus had a grotesque old-man's face, Theseus that of a bull (presumably the Minotaur), Puck a dark red devilish face with a lion's mane and the male lovers those of chickens, combined with feathery costumes. An air of wildness, of untamed activity, was created by the actors adopting the physical mannerisms of these animals, for example in Demetrius and Lysander pecking and squawking at each other as they argued.

The cast of seven doubled to great effect, the changes only becoming apparent very late on when pauses in the action were required for the actors to change. Joey Cunningham played Oberon, Theseus and Flute, Vincent Gracieux played Demetrius and Quince, Paddy Hayter combined Lysander and Bottom while Mas Soegeng juggled Puck, Snug and Egeus. The only characters to be sacrificed were Snout (whose rule was subsumed into Snug's) and Starveling, for whom the moon was silently held up by another actor. The actors spoke in their own accents, which ranged from Cunningham and Hayter's British tones to Akemi Yamauchi's often-unintelligible Japanese accent and Soegeng's deep Indonesian barks. Even when the accent overwhelmed the language, though, the action was clear and accessible, in much the way that Tim Supple's Indian Dream was. The effect was to create a Dream that felt truly global, an experience tied together by language but incorporating the voices and practices of artists from around the world.

The performances were inventive and extremely funny, often using just simple devices to draw huge laughs. My personal highlight was Muriel Piquart's Helena. Resisting the temptation to go into hysterics and horror as the men fell in love with her, Piquart instead simply stood in bemusement and looked at the audience with a pleading surprise, or sat at the edge of the stage looking into space while they waxed lyrical. Her confusion was both amusing and affecting, the woman genuinely thrown by what she was being confronted with. Her meekness contrasted nicely with Caroline Piette's brusquer and livelier Hermia. The two male lovers, meanwhile, were all comic exaggeration and nasty asides, particularly from an extremely harrassed Demetrius who was worn out by the constant attention from Helena. The two even apologised to the nearby audience members as they drew their swords on each other

Oberon and Titania were impressively realised, the one a bald and creepy man, tall and dressed in black, who lurked at the top of the tree or crept in the background of scenes. Titania, meanwhile, was a Japanese acrobat who flitted about the stage and, later, was seen dancing with ribbons. Interestingly, neither wore masks, giving them two of the most human appearances of the play. Oberon was in control throughout the play, watching events unfold with a leer and cackling as he watched Titania and Bottom playing in Titania's bed. Puck, meanwhile, was the flunky. Face completely hidden inside his mask, he bounced as he moved and was incapable of standing still. He played an instrument similar to the spoons in both his hands, using these instruments to indicate the rhythms of his words and thoughts, building to a frenzied climax as he prepared to undertake a task before running off again. More an agent than an instigator, his presence was nevertheless an active and energetic one that propelled the stage activity, and it was Puck who covered costume changes with dances in the centre of the stage.

The play was cut down to two hours with no interval, but somehow in this they managed to extend the Mechanicals' scenes, performing the casting and rehearsal scenes leisurely and adding in plenty of off-text clowning, including a memorable piece of slapstick involving a prop sword being inserted in Quince's backside. Paddy Hayter, who also directed the production, gave a magnificent performance as Bottom: chatting casually to the audience, storming off twice during rehearsals (the second time, after being denied any props, calling over his shoulder "I'm having a hissy fit!") and speaking through protruding teeth. Whole scenes in miniature were created by the four clowns, one involving a mimed scene at a door as Quince, Flute and Snug spoke loudly about Bottom, trying to persuade him to come back inside by complimenting him. However, it was the four's camararderie rather than the set-pieces that most entertained, their easy back-and-forth and groan-inducing puns (as Snug got onto the group's prop box to be given his part, Bottom encouraged him: "Opportunity Box, Snug!").

Bottom's donkey head was enormous, almost the size of the actor again, with a mouth that the actor was able to manipulate to make it sound like his words were coming directly from the head. The enormous scale kept the children entertained but also kept up the carnivalesque atmosphere, turning him into a character straight out of the Mexican "Day of the Dead", and he was paraded around the audience by the fairies who couldn't help their laughter as they looked at him. The parading was also an important part of the final scene as the nobles entered to watch Pyramus and Thisbe. The company brought in six enormous poles with masked mannequins of the six lovers mounted atop them, the poles decorated lavishly in the colours that the characters had been wearing. An abstract representation of the couples, these were paraded around the audience as confetti rained down from above to represent the wedding, before being mounted on stage to "watch" the play. The size of them, with their flowing robes and colours, meant they also served as a backdrop for the inner play, creating a stage in miniature on which the Mechanicals could perform.

Pyramus and Thisbe itself was comic, but in a very different way - an almost avuncular Quince narrated throughout in mock-tragic tones while the female actors appeared as deer and a fake stream of blue material was thrown across the stage. Combined with subdued lighting and flames lit by the actors at either side, the playlet was visually striking and atmospheric. However, low comedy was restored by Flute wearing two enormous balloons which he popped upon stabbing himself, and Bottom's Pyramus predictably milked the death for all it was worth. As the playlet drew to its close, though, the Mechanicals gradually slowed down and were joined by the Fairies, themselves transforming back into their spirit characters, and the seven moved about the stage in a slow dance, Oberon and Titania blessing the house in a beautiful dance again reminiscent of Supple's production but with a very different quality.

This production was beautiful, an entirely unpretentious and thoroughly accessible Dream that continually innovated while still respecting the traditions on which they were drawing. The fantastic performances, juggling farce with more sophisticated comedy, were greeted with repeated encores from the audience until the cast finally announced that they were heading to the bar. A promise that Footsbarn would return soon met with another ovation, and one only hopes that they are as good as their word.

This review originally appeared at Shakespeare Revue.

June 25, 2008

A Midsummer Night's Dream @ Shakespeare's Globe

It's quite frustrating, on an afternoon when you know you're going to have to leave a performance five minutes early, when the show begins with a five minute drum duet between two competing musicians. However, this was very much my fault rather than the Globe's - I had squeezed this production in immediately before a seminar in London, and can hardly expect the Globe to edit a production down purely for my benefit!

I'm surprised to look at the Globe's site and see that they have only produced one in-house Dream there so far (though Northern Broadsides performed their version in the space in the first season). Considering the sheer amount of Dreams every year, and the fact the Globe is an ideal environment for what I always consider to be Shakespeare's most family-friendly play, I'm surprised it's not part of every other season. Jonathan Munby's new production is a reminder of how successful the play can be, keeping an audience largely made up of school and tourist groups thoroughly entertained.

A floating moon-balloon hung over the audience, largely unnoticed in the afternoon light (though pictures of evening productions suggest it illuminates at night). The playing area was a large blue circle lying on the stage, with walkways that extended to the on-stage entrances and curved down into the audience. Athens itself, this colour aside, was dressed in an austere black, matched in the formal costumes of the nobles and lovers. The formal severity of the place was echoed in Theseus and Hippolyta's slow opening dance. Upon the introduction of the lovers, the mood stayed sombre, Egeus casting Hermia to the floor and Theseus making his decrees with a voice that brooked no disobedience - Hermia's apology when saying she didn't know what had made her bold was delivered quickly, in something approaching genuine fear. This was repeated later as Philostrate laughed off Theseus' ignorance in wanting to see Pyramus and Thisbe, which quickly became grovelling as he realised he had overstepped his boundaries.

Upon removal to the forest, though, colour was introduced into this dark environment. A blue drape was thrown down to completely cover the back wall, while the fairies, dressed in purples and blues with tattered skirts and laddered tights, jumped out from trapdoors and planted pink flowers around the stage. The lovers found themselves gradually 'coloured in' too, as their black tunics and outer-dresses were removed during the play to reveal bright yellows and greens, each matched in colour with their ultimate partner for the audience's benefit. The lovers were strong throughout, performing their roles entirely adequately though with no hugely revolutionary readings. Christopher Brandon and Oliver Boot as Lysander and Demetrius were entertainingly OTT as the effects of the love-in-idleness turned them into melodramatic poetry-reciters, while Pippa Nixon and Laura Rogers as their respective beauxs became shriller and shriller as the afternoon wore on, eventually launching themselves at each other in a markedly undignified manner, Hermia having to be restrained in midair as she flew at Helena. The two girls also brought out some nice moments referring back to their shared childhood, the two sitting together at the front of the stage in an attempt to arrest the spiralling confusion, Helena pulling Hermia's head forcefully onto her lap as she relived the past.

Tom Mannion and Siobhan Redmond, doubling Theseus/Oberon and Hippolyta/Titania, made a simple change from English accents to Scottish to distinguish their characters as well as adopting the purple/blue of the rest of the fairies. Mannion had good presence, and was a surprisingly docile Oberon, listening to Titania's defiance quietly and calmly, standing still at a distance, and only moving centrally after she had left. He was almost avuncular with the audience, quietly saying "I am invisible" as if in explanation. Even in his rage against Puck he was quite ready to admit the vagueness of his own instructions. Michael Jibson's Puck (doubled with Philostrate) was also perfectly fine, entering via the roof on a rope but thereafter constantly squirming at pangs in his back that luckily prevented him from having to fly over the audience. This Puck was playful but measured, steering well clear of manicness. The Indian Boy was also on-stage for much of the first act, always sticking close to Titania. After Hippolyta became infatuated with Bottom, though, she placed him on her flowery bed and made to follow him offstage. The Boy ran up to her and plucked at her arm, at which she turned on him and pushed him away, leaving him alone on-stage. His running off in the opposite direction closed the first act.

There was good work among the Mechanicals. Paul Hunter's Bottom was of the likeable-yokel variety, with strong cockney accent and a comically exaggerated manner when 'acting'. His transformation, complete with long teeth, fuzzy chest hair, tail and long ears, was quite effective, and he pranced rather than walked. His eeyoring became a constant irritation to the fairies, who stood around him visibly unimpressed at their charge to attend on him, and even Hippolyta eventually had to gag him. His repeated rubbing of his crotch in the second act, coupled with Hippolyta's more than satisfied sighs and reclining in her bed, left little to the imagination. Peter Bankole played Flute-as-Thisbe with an impressively high-pitched voice, but more interest was to be found in Flute's own revelations as he played a woman. Sharing a stage-kiss with 'Pyramus' (to the predicted "eurghs" from the school groups), he was clearly taken with the experience, smiling simperingly after Bottom. Later, as the players waited for news, he sat sobbing in centre-stage, distraught by Bottom's disappearance. It was comic but also an interesting reading and it would have been nice to see that developed a bit further.

There were plenty of fun moments of visual comedy. Lysander always fell asleep with head turned away from the audience which allowed Puck to pull out two fake eyeballs on long elastic from Lysander's 'head', to suitable grotesque effect. The Mechanicals were always entertaining, and one fantastic moment saw them all freeze in very comic positions as they fled from Bottom. The final performance of Pyramus and Thisbe was plenty of fun too, though there were a surprising amount of borrowings from Greg Doran's RSC production, including having the chink in the Wall being between Snout's legs, forcing Pyramus and Thisbe to kiss crotch and buttocks instead of each other (making Flute's line about "I kiss the hole" especially amusing). Pyramus' death abandoned all reason and saw the actor 'chopping off' all his fingers, toes, crotch, tongue (replacing it when he needed to speak) and finally throwing himself into a heap on the stage to great applause. Quince's repeated squirming and horror as the cast members variously patronised the Duke (Bottom), threw a hissy fit and stormed off (Starveling) or revealed their skin tight leggings (himself) were good fun too.

As the play returned to Athens, the fairies collected up all the flowers and then, in a lovely move, pulled down the blue drape that covered the black wall and carried it out through the auditorium, it covering the audience in a sea of blue material that took some moments to pass over everyone's heads. It was a reminder of the power of the Globe to incorporate its audience into the action in a way other theatres just can't do.

The production was perfectly servicable, though I confess to feeling somewhat disappointed. It was a very straight reading of the play, with very few genuinely original ideas or interpretations - it basically felt as if it had been put on for the sake of putting on a solid Dream, which is of course completely valid, but it would have been nice to have a few more moments of interest. However, the performances and direction were good across the board, and the audience screamed with delight at every joke, so in those terms it was certainly a success. Oh, and if anyone can tell me what happened in the play's closing moments (after Oberon started singing in Theseus' house) I'd be very interested to know what I missed!

May 05, 2007

A Midsummer Night's Dream @ The Swan Theatre

I’ve raved about this production before, the greatest, or 2nd greatest (depending on my mood) production of the Complete Works Festival. It’s back for three sold-out weeks in Stratford-upon-Avon, and the production has gone from strength to strength since it was last here, playing to packed audience around the globe.

This is, of course, Tim Supple’s Dash Arts, with their multi-lingual Indian cast performing ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’. It’s a sublime piece of theatre, combining jaw-dropping visual spectacle, fascinating textual interpretation, deeply affecting music and brilliant performances. It’s garnered five star reviews wherever it goes, standing ovations and a genuine sense of crossover- this is a production which all audiences can enjoy. It doesn’t offend those who dislike Shakespeare being translated, it doesn’t pander to any sense of tradition, it doesn’t mess with the text or allow itself to become tied up by it. It does its own thing, creating something completely new in the spirit of Shakespeare, and impeccably balances between opposing viewpoints. It is, in point of fact, the production which sits at the exact point where all the conflicting arguments I talked about in my previous post meet. I’ve yet to meet anyone who dislikes it, and I would really like to sit down and talk to anyone who did.

I digress, however. The great thing about seeing a production multiple times is the opportunity to look more closely at some of the subtleties- or, in this case, the not-so-subtleties. The aggressive sexuality of this production was quite shocking, with Demetrius almost raping Hermia and Helena actually succumbing to Lysander’s affections, the two of them quite clearly about to have sex before Demetrius interrupted them. What came across were the fleeting affections of these youths, all highly sexually charged and led purely by their libidos. In the incredible scene where Puck filled the stage with tape, impeding the lovers’ progress, their many frustrations and confusions became physically realities as they stumbled over each other, prevented by Puck’s restrictions from being able to reach each other or make any meaningful contact. This all added to the sense of restoration as the couples were arranged in pairs, hanging in the framework of the stage to be discovered by Theseus and Hippolyta.

The final song didn’t quite draw tears from me this time, but it remained a very emotional scene, as the dancers brought candles in and blessed the house in beautiful harmony. The dance contrasted effectively with the more animalistic dance of the reunited Oberon and Titania, pawing the ground around each other and rolling in the dust while the fairies whooped and clapped.

I think I’ve said enough. This production, to me, is what theatre is all about, and I urge people to track it down. Excitingly, the director is coming to the CAPITAL Carnival on May 13th, and even though I’ve heard him speak a couple of times I’m really looking forward to hearing him talk again about his methods.

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Peter Kirwan is Teaching Associate in Shakespeare and Early Modern Drama at the University of Nottingham and a reviewer of Shakespearean theatre for several academic journals.

The Bardathon is his experimental review blog, covering productions of (or based on) all early modern plays. The aim is to combine immediate reactions with the detail and analysis of the academic review.

Theatre criticism always needs more voices. Please comment with your own views and contributions!

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