A Midsummer Night’s Dream
by William Shakespeare
Directed by Christopher Scott
Designed by Mike Bearwish
Bristol Old Vic Theatre School
West Country Tour
The Tivoli Theatre, Wimborne, Dorset
Wednesday 8th June 2016
Theseus / Fairy Mustardseed – Bradley Banton
Philostrae / Peasblossom – Luke Grant
Lysander – Rudolphe Mdlongwa
Demetrius – Ellis Duffy
Quince / Moth – Euan Shanahan
Bottom (Pyramus) – Georgia Frost
Flute (Thisbe) / Cobweb – Christopher Jenks
Egeus / Snout (Wall) – Billy Harris
Oberon – Ray Sesay
Hippolyta / First Fairy – Rachel Partington
Hermia – Emily Williams
Helena – Eleanor House
Titania / Snug (Lion) – Alice Kerrigan
Puck – Laura Soper
Additional music: Eleanor House
Cornet – Laura Soper
This is our fourth A Midsummer Night’s Dream in a couple of months, and the other three were as major, and indeed as expensive, in production terms as you can get: Royal Shakespeare Company: A Play For The People, then the Emma Rice production at The Globe and the populist Lord of The Rings meets Harry Potter in the BBC TV production. This one was announced, and we thought it would be a refreshing change just to let our favourite play speak for itself in a less ambitious production from Bristol Old Vic Theatre School. It’s good to see theatre getting to Wimborne, Wells and Wedmore; Shaftesbury, Stroud and South Petherton. It’s fantastic training for the actors, setting up and doing one night stands too.
Wimborne cost one sixth the price of a Kenneth Branagh ticket. In a couple of years, given another Grandage or Branagh season, some of these actors will be in there. So, guys, I’m not reviewing it as final year students, but as an experience of theatre on the same basis as any fully professional play.
There is a concept. It’s set in an 1870 Yorkshire Woollen Mill, in Shipley. The whole play then becomes Bottom’s dream … as Puck’s final speech says, nothing yielding but a dream. The programme says he’s dreaming of a production at the Alhambra in Bradford, with his bosses as weird sprites. Bristol Old Vic? A West Country company, touring the West Country. They’re going to places in Somerset and Wiltshire where abandoned woollen mills line, no, litter, the rivers and canals. Take a look when they’re in Stroud or Devizes. the West Country woollen industry is an earlier phase of the industrial revolution, so I see no reason to import Trouble at mill Yorkshire clichés. As a Southerner, I get fed up of it being drilled into us that only Northern England suffered industrial drudgery.
Does the concept work? It looks good as they start out as industrial workers singing a song, then clicking away at machine noises before Theseus, now their master, appears. Inexplicably, whirring loom noises play softly through the PA throughout, even when they have left the mill context … a strange idea, as it’s mainly mildly annoying.
It runs them into accent issues. I think it fair to say, as she did the final post-play speech, that Laura Soper’s Puck is the joint lead in this version with Georgia Frost’s Bottom. Both are outstanding, and instant tips for the future. Both also have no problem at all with Yorkshire accents. For the rest of the cast, it’s a mixed reaction. Doing Shakespeare, blank verse, rhyme, a character and an accent which is not your normal pattern is like rubbing your stomach and patting your head at the same time. Theseus has definite accent drift. So do others. They’ve given Hippolyta an ‘Allo ‘Allo French accent for no apparent reason, and though Puck and the fairies are Yorkshire tykes, Titania is RP and Oberon is African to the degree that he’s sometimes hard to understand. The lovers are RP. I’m dubious about going for accents and also dubious about “whatever you can do.” My remark about West Country woollen mills is best ignored in production, because while I’d happily attempt Yorkshire to a Somerset audience, I would be worried about attempting Somerset. Or even Mummerset.
It’s a short, heavily cut production … two hours running time plus interval. That also makes it fast and snappy. Good. They make a lot of line changes. On the text, in recent years Theseus’s relationship with Hippolyta, Queen of The Amazons, is prickly. She was captured. She usually resents him. Here, they’re lovey-dovey. The line I wooed thee with my sword becomes I wooed thee with my words. Athens becomes Shipley, or later Yorkshire. Athenian clothes become “flamboyant clothes.” The mask for Thisbe becomes “wig” (a common switch). The Duke becomes “the master.” The palace (or perhaps “The temple”) becomes “the mill.” The clearing in the wood becomes Shipley Glen. If they’re doing the obsessive Yorkshire, then Ilkley Moor might have been fun.
While you’re shifting lines, I was mildly surprised at some that didn’t go. Both recent productions dropped Lysander’s “Ethiop!” insult to Hermia, this one kept it, but as Lysander was black himself and Hermia white, it rang oddly. On the other hand, I was more surprised when a previous version dropped it for a black Hermia. There is a set casting decision, one of the few dictated by Shakespeare, in that Hermia (Emily Williams) needs to be noticeably shorter than Helena. That worked very well here. They didn’t follow the normal dark hair for Hermia, lighter for Helena (Eleanor House), which is usually done, but decent wigs are expensive and also a pain to deal with daily. It’s normally done to make sense of the dark and tawny insults.
Bottom (Georgia Frost), Titania (Alice Kerrigan)
The great strength of this production is in acting performance and in stage movement. There is much brilliant blocking and movement. Puck shadowing Lysander and Demetrius’s stances as they chase each other with sticks is excellent, as are all Puck’s fluid movements. Bottom is a natural comedian with the movement to prove it. The four lovers active scene … the quarrel … is my favourite part of the play, and their performances here would grace any professional production.
Bottom (Georgia Frost)
It was a better than average Pyramus & Thisbe too – I include the stellar BBC one as a lesser example. Yes, this was better than the BBC. Having a small Bottom in Georgia Frost … incidentally, a gender switch to a female actor playing male here that was seamless … and an extremely tall Thisbe is great. I always hope for bits of additional business and there were several. Bottom manipulating the lion like a puppet was very good. So was having Bottom switch Thisbe’s dropped scarf for a bloodied scarf and doing it with difficulty. They did the height joke, with Bottom pulling down the chink in the wall to his (her) level, but given such a tall Thisbe, I’d have milked the joke a bit further. First rate dying scenes from both Pyramus and Thisbe. When Bottom has the ass’s tail, they have some vulgar fun with pulling it through to the front, as it should be. That’s been noticeably absent recently.
Bottom, Titania and Fairies
The weakness is design and costume. The costume when they’re mill workers is very good and you can see a great deal of effort and thought went into them. The flat caps reminded me that this the third “Peaky Blinders” costume style in a few weeks (Northern Broadsides The Merry Wives and The Globe’s Taming Of The Shrew are equally flat-capped). The rude mechanicals, dressed as mill workers … still good. Bottom as Pyramus as a Sudan War era redcoat soldier is excellent. Puck is excellent with gold trousers and tails (yes, it’s echoing the current RSC, but it is good). Demetrius gets a notably good costume with green velvet jacket. But I’m going to stop there.
Obviously we cannot compare RSC / Globe / Branagh costume budgets, which is why on this sort of tour simplicity is a good rule. However, we had full new costumes for the very short Theseus / Hippolyta hunting scene. Money down the drain. It should have been spent on three of the lovers. Why on Earth are Hermia and Helena, supposedly in 1870, dressed in Wars Of The Roses left over 15th century dresses? They look as if they’ve just walked out of Henry VI Part X. Completely wrong. Why is Lysander wearing black shorts, grey long socks, a gold and cream waistcoat, cravat and red jacket? Plus fours in a garish shade would have been funny, as he’s supposed to be flamboyant, but these are black shorts. I did like the colour coding in pairs though … Lysander and Hermia in bright red; Helena and Demetrius in green. It subliminally helps the school parties sort it out.
The RP accents indicate the lovers are the 1870 middle class … Egeus is played as the local vicar, a nice idea. So it’s simple. There are a lot of Oscar Wilde costumes about. A pretty girly Cecily frock for Hermia, the vicar’s daughter. A more formal darker Gwedolyn dress for Helena, who fears she’s less attractive. Also, as young girls, even in 1870 they don’t need to trail their skirts on the floor. Ankle length with ankle boots is fine, and much more practical for the intense physical work in the quarrel scene. Lysander? Easy. Bright striped blazer and cricket flannels.
The worst costume decision is Oberon and Titania. First of all, the masks obscuring half their faces with foliage is a really bad idea. The two actors are instantly confined to “mouth only acting.” We can’t see them properly. The green fringes of crepe make the black Oberon look like a Maori in an overlength grass cloak and skirt. On my “What would you feel if you were watching this with an (African) friend?” ethnicity test, the answer is “embarrassed.” Oberon looks like Man Friday in a cheap panto, or more charitably, something from the African sections of The Book of Mormon.
They’re touring to a wide variety of venues, so they have a foot high raised stage area sitting on top of the actual stage, designed for the smallest theatre. Even at Wimborne’s Tivoli, that left them a lot of unworked stage area around it while they were crowded onto their raised platform. With the sort of movement used in the lover’s quarrel, the actors do need to know where they are and boundaries may be necessary, but it does cram everything together. They use it because they’re carrying their own lights which need to be placed outside the platform. A note that the stage right front corner loses light on the actor at a few critical points.
The mill – big photo of looms and two twisted belts is strong, as are moons either side. But the sub-Richard Morris Liberty curtain over it for the forest is too fussy, as are the standing room dividers with fussy patterns in the forest. It’s messy and distracts from the actors. As with costume, if you have budget restraints, you should go for greater simplicity.
It’s lively, fast, fresh. Added songs are a good idea, nice bits of flute and penny whistle and a wonderful wobbly offstage cornet. There are two mega productions this year (RSC, Globe) which will b shown in cinemas. But I think it’s always more fun to see real actors on a real stage. If they’re coming near you, go for it!
OTHER REVIEWS OF A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM ON THIS BLOG:
- A Midsummer Night’s Dream – RSC 2011
- A Midsummer Night’s Dream – Headlong 2011
- A Midsummer Night’s Dream – Filter 2011
- A Midsummer Night’s Dream – Selladoor 2013
- A Midsummer Nights Dream – Handspring 2013, Bristol
- A Midsummer Night’s Dream – Grandage 2013
- A Midsummer Night’s Dream – Globe 2013
- A Midsummer Night’s Dream – Propellor 2013
- A Midsummer Night’s Dream RSC 2016, ‘A Play for the Nation’ at Stratford
- A Midsummer Night’s Dream RSC 2016 Revisited
- A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Globe 2016
- A Midsummer Night’s Dream, BBC – TV 2016
- A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Bath Theatre Royal, 2016