Tag Archives: A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Rock Bottom

A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM

Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Tuesday 18th June, 2019

 

Oddsocks return, not only to Coventry, but also to Athens, the fictional Athens of Shakespeare’s romcom, for this new production that marks thirty years in the business.  Director Andy Barrow never fails to come up with new ideas to reinterpret and restage the Bard, with his pared-down cast and signature Oddsocks humour.  A stroke of genius is to have the ‘Mechanicals’ as builders working at Theseus’s palace: and so the set is initially draped in their dustsheets before ‘transforming’ into the forest.  Barrow himself appears as Bottom the Builder (yes, he can!) complete with beer belly and builder’s bottom.  We laugh straight away but even dressed like this, Barrow can wring nuances from his characterisation.  His Egeus is a blustering gammon, and his Oberon is a towering faun, with cloven hooves and curling horns.

Most of the humour, most of the playing, is done with broad strokes, and Barrow’s cast prove masters (and mistresses) of the in-house style.   Alex Wadham’s cocky Demetrius and desperately melodramatic Thisbe; Asha Cornelia-Cluer’s upper-class twit of a Hippolyta, her plucky Helena and graceful Titania; Peter Hoggart’s sheepish Lion – (Hoggart brings slapstick, physical comedy to his Lysander); and Christopher Smart’s easy-going Theseus and officious Peter Quince… Alice Merivale’s feisty Hermia and her energetic Scouse Puck… The entire ensemble works tirelessly to populate the scenes, adlibbing when they need to but also delivering Shakespeare’s verse with expression and conviction.  This is Shakespeare at its most accessible – the inclusion of popular songs, played live by this versatile cast, adds to the fun and to the story.  I’ve seen many a jukebox musical where the song choices don’t work anywhere near as well.  Hermia and Lysander give a rendition of The Corrs’s Runaway, Helena sings You Can’t Hurry Love, Bottom treats us to Passenger’s Scare Away The Dark (I suspect Andy Barrow would be a rock star in another life)… The whole thing ends with Oberon and the Fairies Dancing in the Moonlight.  And it’s a blast.

Of course, the play-within-a-play is achingly funny, with the added bonus of a member of the audience selected to portray the Wall, for a spot of good-natured victimisation.  Where some productions attempt to make us feel with Thisbe’s mock-plaintive words, Barrow goes all-out for big laughs.  And gets them.

A joyous version, both faithful and subversive, that shows Oddsocks are still at the top of their game after all this time.  Here’s to the next thirty years!

A Midsummer Nights Dream

It Takes Two: Oberon (Andy Barrow) and Titania (Asha Cornelia Cluer)

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All’s Fairy in Love and War

A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM

Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, Sunday 9th June, 2019

 

The Crescent’s summer touring production this year is Shakespeare’s enduring romantic comedy with a supernatural twist, and I am lucky enough to catch an indoor performance rather than brave the vagaries of the British summer!

This is an enjoyable, accessible production – Director Georgina Evans opts for modern-dress on a simple set of slender branches and fairy lights; although, I do find the draconian laws of Athens at odds with the familiarity of the attire.  I think more needs to be made of the sheer unreasonableness of the patriarchy here (Marry whom I tell you to or be celibate for the rest of your life) and poor Hermia (Charlotte Thompson) needs to be more terrified/upset/resentful/what-have-you at the onset, so that when Lysander (the excellent Jacob Williams) steps forward with an escape plan, it comes as more of a relief, a desperate measure for desperate times.  Hold up, I did say this is a comedy… In Shakespeare, a comedy is where the problems of the drama are overcome by the characters (as opposed to tragedy, where the characters are overcome by the problems).  After this dark and severe (and potentially tragic) opening, the fun and frolics in the forest should come as sharper contrast.  Evans has an eye for comic business, and it’s the little details, the interplay, the fleeting expressions, that bring the joy to this production.

Ollie Jones is Duke Theseus – he warms into the role as the play goes on, lacking the imperious tones and power of Andrew Cowie’s magnificent fairy king Oberon (special mention to Angela Daniels for his striking costume and headdress).  Aimee Ferguson is a subdued Hippolyta, yet this conquered Amazon is not shy to express her views, through action, while Shady Murphy’s Titania is a dynamic presence.  Les Stringer brings gravitas as the unreasonable Egeus, softening into a kind of Polonius figure when he is finally overruled by the Duke.

Charlotte Thompson has her moments as Hermia – particularly the slanging match with Jessica Shannon’s marvellous Helena.  Jordan Bird is a pleasing Demetrius, vying with Jacob Williams’s Lysander – both do the lovestruck fool bit rather well.  Dayna Bateman is thoroughly charming as the hardworking Puck, whose meddling in mortal affairs does not always go to plan.

The Mechanicals are a likeable bunch, led by ‘Rita’ Quince (Nicole Poole) with Scott Wilson’s Flute blossoming into a sublimely ridiculous Thisbe, towering over a diminutive Pyramus (Crescent stalwart James David Knapp having a crack at Bottom, so to speak).  Knapp’s comic instincts are sound and I’d say he could afford to be even more bullish as Bottom dominates the group’s rehearsals.

While there are some line-readings that don’t quite come across, on the whole everyone handles the language rather well and with conviction, which is no mean feat when there are scenes comprised of rhyming couplets.  Of course, the play-within-a-play provides the most laughs – it’s one of the funniest scenes in Shakespeare, in all theatre, probably, and the company do an excellent, raucous job with it.  There’s a lovely celebratory feel to the closing moments and a rousing song to finish.  Funny and sweet, the show would perhaps benefit from starker contrast between the dark and light to intensify the impact of both.

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Top Bottom: James David Knapp (Photo: Graeme Braidwood)


A Way With The Fairies

A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM: A Play For The Nation

Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Thursday 16th June, 2016

 

As part of the commemorations of Shakespeare’s 400th death-iversary, The RSC has undertaken the unenviable and colossal task of staging a production of his popular comedy and touring it around the country – but that’s only the half of it.  At each stop, the so-called ‘rude mechanicals’ are being played by hand-picked troupes of amateur performers.  A big chance for them and a big gamble for the RSC.  Add to this, dozens of children from local primary schools… Luckily, no one handles child performers like the RSC – you only have to think of Matilda to know this is going to work brilliantly.

If this afternoon’s performance is anything to go by, the gamble has paid off in spades.  It is an absolute pleasure to see ‘The Nonentities’ from Kidderminster taking the stage among world class professionals, and holding their own.  But I’ll come back to them in a bit…

Among the pros – a delightful ensemble that, under Erica Whyman’s direction, make familiar lines sound fresh and funny – we get a female Puck (Lucy Ellinson) a kind of cross-dressing music hall figure, like Vesta Tilley.  Ellinson is both knowing and clownish in this setting: we’re in a disused theatre, it looks like, during wartime.  Tom Piper’s design gives us bare floorboards and footlights.  The forest has not a speck of green but rather the red of the Curtain.  Chu Omambala’s Oberon, the fairy king, is stylish in his white suit, bringing a jazzy element to proceedings, in contrast with Ayesha Dharker’s exotic Titania, in blood red sari.  Omambala and Dharker are deadly serious – these are not fairies of whimsy, however petty their squabble may seem.

The other ruling couple, Theseus (Sam Redford) and Hippolyta (Laura Harding) stride around like genial aristocracy.  It is the younger members of the cast that bring life to the scenes in Athens.  Mercy Ojelade is a fiery Hermia, her passion born of pain and injustice, while Laura Riseborough’s Helena also expresses the pain of unrequited love in a highly sympathetic characterisation.  Chris Nayak’s Demetrius is a pompous prig, so it’s enjoyable to see him go to the other extreme in the name of love, but it’s Jack Holden’s delightful school prefect of a Lysander that gets the most laughs and touches the heart.  It is the freshest interpretation of this character I have seen.  Scenes in which the young men vie for Helena, to Hermia’s dismay and fury, are superbly done, using physicality as well as Shakespeare’s barrage of insults to great comic effect.

But back to those mechanicals.  Chris Clarke is spot on as overbearing bully Bottom – and you can’t help liking his ridiculous declamations.  Sue Downing’s Peter Quince is assertive enough to stage-manage Bottom’s ego, and Andrew Bingham’s shy Snug makes for an adorably shy and cowardly lion.  Of course, the West Midlands accent gives them a head start when it comes to comic value, but here it is the playing that gets the laughs and endears them to us.  Alex Powell’s Flute blossoms as a performer so we he comes to give his Thisbe (or Thiz-bay, as they would have it) we see how far he has come.  The performance that is the culmination of their efforts is absolutely joyous.  It is surely Shakespeare’s funniest scene and here it is expertly executed.  The affection we feel for the mechanicals succeeding in their task is echoed by the admiration we have for this company who rise to the challenge, hold their own, and pull it off with aplomb.

An unadulterated delight.

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Chris Nayak and Jack Holden restrain Mercy Ojelade – just about (Photo: Topher McGrillis)

 


Dream A Little Dream

POCKET DREAM

Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Thursday 4th February, 2016

 

This production of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream by the ever-excellent Propeller company is stripped down to a running time of just over an hour – the cast is also stripped down to their long johns, to which they add a cloak here or a hat there to enable them to double up on roles.

Robin Goodfellow aka Puck (aka Tam Williams) narrates, providing a nifty spot of exposition to cover scenes that have been mercilessly excised from the text. Gone are Duke Theseus and Queen Hippolyta. Gone too is Hermia’s father, taking with him the darker, more dramatic aspects of the story. Here, director Edward Hall and his co-adapter Roger Warren focus on the entanglements of the romantic comedy, along with the broader slapstick of the ‘rude mechanicals’. It all tears along at breakneck speed and is as slick as it is funny. Which is extremely.

The cast provide their own sound effects and backing music as they hurtle through the plot. Chris Myles is an imperious fairy king Oberon and a bombastic bully Bottom, a ham actor who, had there been any scenery, would have chewed it. Antony Jardine is a dashing Demetrius (well, there’s a lot of dashing around by everyone!) and an affable Peter Quince. Max Hutchinson’s coolly feminine Titania contrasts with his tightly-wound Helena, while Matthew McPherson’s Hermia rants and raves with an abundance of physical exertion. Oliver Wilson’s Snout is a groovy mover, as opposed to his hot-headed and more courtly Lysander. It is Tam Williams’s Robin/Puck that holds the thing together, charming in his tutu and playing a mean trombone.

The comic business is tightly choreographed and cartoonish in places. The attention to detail and the handling of pacing are delightful to behold. The text is clearly delivered, with Shakespeare’s rhyming couplets heightening the fantastic elements of events. The Pyramus and Thisbe performance, which I maintain is the funniest scene in all Shakespeare, is hilariously chaotic. Without the heckling of Duke Theseus and his courtiers, its silliness rattles along uninterrupted.

Aimed at young audiences, this Dream is an engaging, enjoyable, exhausting if not exhaustive introduction to the play, and to Shakespeare. If the reaction of audience members of every age is anything to go by, Propeller delivers a cracking night out for one and all.

 

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A dream of a Dream

A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM

New Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham, Wednesday 4th June, 2014

 

Propeller’s first visit to Birmingham brings a double bill of Shakespeare’s Comedy of Errors and, the show I saw, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, giving the people of our second city the chance to see this all-male troupe bring their inventive and accessible takes on classic plays. Edward Hall is surely the most reliable director of Shakespeare – I have yet to see one of his takes on Will’s plays that I didn’t enjoy or admire. Here, he dresses his cast as street performers, pallid clowns or saltimbanques. They don bits of costume to identify them as main characters or otherwise blend into the chorus, flitting and running around in a swarm of activity. The aesthetic never obscures the action and the verse is spoken with clarity and emotion – I defy anyone to fail to be charmed and transported by the production. It’s also very funny.

Matthew McPherson is a pouting, petulant Hermia (and also doubles as Snug the Joiner) contrasting splendidly with Dan Wheeler’s taller and heartfelt Helena. There is a fantastically funny brawl between these two, helped and hindered by their bewitched boyfriends, Demetrius (Arthur Wilson) and Lysander (Richard Pepper). This scene was the comic highlight of the evening for me, outshining the Pyramus & Thisbe interlude, which I feel is a little too manic and overdone – However there is much to enjoy in Chris Myles’s Bottom. James Tucker is an elegant and haughty ‘proud Titania’ and Will Featherstone rounds out his Hippolyta, making her a character rather than an ornament for Theseus (an excellent Dominic Gerrard). The female roles are never impersonations or drag acts; the actors evoke femininity with gestures and attitude, while keeping their maleness apparent.

Joseph Chance is a merry, balletic puck in striped red and white tights and frilly tutu, while Darrell Brockis’s Oberon is the master magician in sparkling cloak, while David Acton’s impassioned Egeus memorably establishes the conflict that triggers the rest of the plot.

It’s a prouction that uses theatricality to bring out the magical aspects of the story, but the tricks and gimmicks are all in service of the script, proving yet again that Propeller is the go-to company for intelligent, effective interpretations that actually work as entertainment.

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Dream a Little Dream

A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM

Stafford Festival Shakespeare, Stafford Castle, Thursday 11th July, 2013

Using the remains of the castle as a backdrop, the stage nestles into the bailey’s slopes and dips with a simple evocation of the forest and the palace of Theseus.  Elegant pagodas are dotted around, the largest of which serves as a bandstand; as the audience arrive, the Mechanicals treat us to a light-hearted concert of Gilbert & Sullivan numbers.  The setting is Edwardian and a little bit colonial but director Peter Rowe doesn’t labour the point.  By keeping things simple, he allows the comedy of Shakespeare’s script to hold centrestage, proving you don’t need gimmicks and ‘clever’ reinterpretations to make a production accessible and effective.

Quite simply, it’s one of the funniest Dreams I’ve seen in a long while.

The ensemble of four young lovers is intensely presented.  Hilarious when they’re under the influence of Oberon’s love-juice (sic) and rowdy when their passions are aroused, this quartet demonstrate physical comedy that belies the elegance and formality of their period costumes.  Jennifer Greenwood is a fireball of a Hermia, contrasting with Georgina White’s neurotic Helena.  Eamonn O’Dwyer is a poised, slightly stuffy Demetrius but it is Craig Fletcher’s dashing Lysander who gets most of the laughs.

As you’d expect, the Mechanicals are delightful.  An affable bunch directed by Phylip Harries’s Quince, they prepare their production of Pyramus & Thisbe in the woods. Interestingly and very effectively, their version is a cod operetta, continuing the G & S motif.  It works brilliantly, thanks to Greg Palmer’s musical direction and composition.  James Haggie’s Thisbe is a scream, Paul Kissaun’s Lion is adorable (such a contrast between this actor’s Snug the joiner and his Egeus!) but of course, it is Bottom the weaver who dominates.  Eric Potts shows himself to be a wonderful Shakespearean clown, stepping outside his customary role as pantomime dame.  His Bottom is rounded, cheeky and pert.

Simone James is aloof as Hippolyta and graceful as Titania, followed by a troupe of fairies; the otherworldly aspects of the production are simply and stylishly achieved; the overall effect is magical.  Robert Fitch’s Oberon is more commanding than his Theseus, but then the fairy king has mischief to be done.  His servant Puck, for me, steals the show.  Lanre Malaolu gives an excitable Puck, a ball of pent-up energy, a nifty little mover with some fine comic playing.

A dream of a Dream, then.  Already I’m looking forward to hearing about next year’s production.

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Eric Potts and Phylip Harries indulge in some pre-show operetta


Russian To and Fro

A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM (AS YOU LIKE IT)
Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Monday 13th August 2012

A Midsummer Night’s Dream features a bunch of amateur actors, the ‘Mechanicals’ who rehearse and present the ancient story of Pyramus and Thisbe to an audience comprised of the Athenian royal family. Their performance is one of the funniest scenes in all Shakespeare and is the springboard for this production by Russian director Dmitry Krymov.

On the surface the show appears to have borrowed its aesthetic from latter-day silent movie hit, The Artist: everyone’s in black tie, much of the show is performed in silence, and there is even a scene-stealing little dog. The sparse dialogue is in Russian but is helpfully translated onto screens – like the captions in silent movies.

Flanked by the well-to-do ‘audience’ in makeshift royal boxes, the company recounts their version of the myth using mime, clowning, acrobatics and, above all (literally), a pair of fifteen-foot high puppets that represent the doomed lovers. The ‘unfinished’ and ‘under rehearsed’ aspects, for which they apologise profusely, add to the enjoyment. Will each clumsy acrobatic stunt come off? Will the giant Pyramus topple into the (real) audience?

The whole enterprise is an absurdist fantasy and a delight from start to finish. The humour is both broad (Pyramus sports a hydraulic phallus of which Aristophanes would have been proud) and subtle: there is much to do with our perception of theatre and the absurdity of human interaction.

Persistent heckler Liya Akhedzhakova rattles off a tall story about a lion by way of interjection; Alexy Kokhanov is the voice of Pyramus, serenading his doll-faced Thisbe in a beautiful German tenor. Sergey Melkonyan narrates in a world-weary manner – indeed, the entire company has a Keatonesque deadpan delivery, resigned to their lot and, paradoxically, celebrating our lot.

Venya the little dog is cute and remarkably on cue. The use of real animals makes me uneasy in entertainment (and in sport) (and in cuisine) and I spotted a wire attached to Venya’s collar. I hope he was being fed verbal instructions from offstage rather than anything more sinister.

The piece is aware of its ‘avant garde’ nature – ‘avant garde’ in the traditional sense, using approaches, skills and techniques that are time-honoured and well-worn. There is something quite nostalgic in its execution and not the slightest whiff of pretension. It is certainly one of the most enjoyable ninety minutes I’ve spent in a theatre in recent months.