A Midsummer Night’s Dream: “A Play For The Nation”
By William Shakespeare
Directed by Erica Whyman
Designed by Tom Piper
Music by Sam Kenyon
Royal Shakespeare Company,
Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon
Saturday 27th February 2016, 13.15
CAST (TWO UNDERSTUDY CHANGES)
Hippolyta – Lila Clements (understudy)
Theseus – Sam Redford
Egeus – Peter Hamilton Dyer
Puck- Lucy Ellison
Titania – Laura Harding (understudy)
Oberon – Chu Omambala
Hermia – Mercy Ojelade
Helena – Laura Riseborough
Lysander – Jack Holden
Demetrius – Chris Nayak
Philostrate – Jon Trenchard
First Fairy – Theo St. Claire
Fairy / Music Director – Tarek Merchant
WITH THE BEAR PIT COMPANY
Shirley Allwork – Starveling, the Tailor
Charlotte Froud – Snug, the Joiner
Roger Ganner- Quince, the Carpenter
David Mears – Bottom, The Weaver
Dominic Skinner – Flute, the Bellows Mender
David Southeard – Snout, the Tinker
SEE ALSO: A Midsummer Night’s Dream RSC 2016 Revisited Stratford, (July) for a review of the same production five months later, with a different set of Mechanicals from Belfast.
This is a brilliant concept – that is to engage amateur companies from across the nation (hence the subtitle A Play For The Nation) and have them play the rude mechanicals, with the professionals performing all the other roles. Not only that, but there will be a different amateur company in each venue, with two in Stratford. That’s 84 amateurs. Elizabethan theatre grew out of two British traditions. First was the Mystery Cycles in the great cities, where each craft guild (a guild owned secrets of its trade, or “mysteries”) put on one scene from the Bible story on carts drawn through the streets. These scenes were related to the craft, so the carpenters might build Noah’s Ark, or the Goldsmiths might do the three Magi. The other thread was the student dramas by boy players in the Inns of Court and elsewhere, part of the Renaissance rediscovered interest in classical plays, and sometimes performed in Latin or Greek. Shakespeare lampooned both and was in contest with the student companies for the Blackfriars Theatre. The programme notes that the very last Mystery Cycle performance was in 1579 in Coventry, a mere 20 miles from Stratford, so the young Shakespeare could conceivably have seen it, and therefore we get to the rude mechanicals and their performance of Pyramus and Thisbe another story of forbidden love, and one that dates from Ovid and which was retold by Chaucer. Just the sort of classical story the boy players could have done in the Inns of Court then. So the play within a play is a double-edged sword.
The press night reviews and the photos show The Nonentities company, and Dominic Cavendish in the Telegraph reckons “the freshest most entertaining moments came from the incomers” . On our Saturday it’s been switched to The Bear Pit Company. I’d guess they intend the local companies to use local accents, and reviewers picked out the West Midlands accents of The Nonentities from Kidderminster for particular praise. The Bear Pit Company are from Stratford-Upon-Avon, and prove the oft-quoted statement on British accents, i.e. the main Southern accent stops about 100 yards north of Stratford, so they’re mainly RP Southern, with the exception of the Welsh lion.
When I first heard of it, I assumed that the amateur groups would exclude Bottom, who has to interact with the professionals and is usually a “name actor” role (I’ve seen David Walliams and David Troughton for example) but no, Bottom is a local find too. So there will be many different versions … or not? Are they all being directed to follow the same interpretation of the roles? The Bear Pit Company site says they rehearsed under their own director, Nicky Cox, before working with Erica Whyman. I’m guessing every one is different. The Nonentities had a female Peter Quince and mentioned the Lantern acting as a boom operator. The Bear Pit Company had an older female lantern (she looked brilliant too) and a male Peter Quince.
I’d love to see another performance with a different set of actors to compare. You can see them all at the end of the season in Stratford, after they have toured the country. The tour goes to Belfast, Glasgow, Truro, Norwich, Newcastle, Blackpool, Bradford, Canterbury, Cardiff, London and Nottingham Annoyingly, they’re giving the central South a total miss, perhaps having done the accent at Stratford. I would have hoped for Bath, or Bristol or Brighton or Southampton or Chichester or Salisbury or even Poole … but Bath has their own production of the play later in the year. I’d love to see two lots.
The cast list throws up a major change from the norm. Since Peter Brooks production, it’s become standard to combine Theseus and Oberon with one actor, and combine Titania and Hippolyta. Not here. We’re on pre-1969 style, and with a definite purpose. It’s also normal to combine Egeus (Hermia’s dad) and Philostrate, Theseus’s major domo, in this case for economy. But here they’re separate too.
The separation of Theseus /Hippolyta from Oberon / Titania is a deliberate part of the concept. The play takes place in what appears to be a bombed out theatre. The reviews and programme say “in the 1940s” but I think it’s more specific than that. Some of the schoolkids have luggage labels pinned on their clothes, so they are evacuees. As there was little bombing in 1939, I’d say that means 1940. Egeus (Peter Hamilton Dyer) in a perfect touch is a high-ranking RAF officer, and is treated with deference and salutes. It’s the Battle of Britain. Egeus had so many rings on his sleeve, I think he was an Air Marshall.
The Forest transformation (here with Ayesha Dharkar)
When they switch to the Forest of Arden, which they do with a BANG! , red banners descend and a sea of red petals floats down. It signals the Hindu Festival of Holi: the festival of colours and most significantly, of sharing love. Look at the programme and flier above. Ayesha Dharkar is a British-Indian actress (she was Queen Jamilla in Star Wars II- Attack of The Clones). Chu Omambala is British, of, I assume, African descent. They are both a breeze of exotic beauty, male and female, in contrast to the uptight Theseus, Hippolyta and the stuffy authoritarian Egeus. In a weird piece of synchronicity, iTunes on shuffle just burst out with The Times They Are A-Changing as I was typing this. Exactly. It’s an image of Britain as it was and the dream of a multi-cultural Britain to follow. Great concept … unfortunately it didn’t happen a planned on this Saturday because Ayesha Dharkar was ill. Laura Harding moved from Hippolyta to Titania, and Lila Clements switched from a fairy to Hippolyta. It needs not saying that RSC understudies will be excellent. But we lost Ayesha Dharkar clad in red and gold in the photos, to a white, blonde Titania clad in royal blue. They had clearly decided not to follow the red colour coding if they had to switch. So however good Laura Harding was (and she was fabulous) we lost a great chunk of the ethnicity concept in losing Ayesha Dharkar.
Laura Harding as Titania (from Laura Harding’s Twitter feed)
So to our fairy trio, Titania, Oberon and Puck. We have seen A Midsummer Night’s Dream most year’s since the original Peter Brook touring production made it our absolute favourite play. Memory is not sharp enough to do truly comparative ratings, but let’s simply say that we have never seen a better Oberon than Chu Omambala, and we have never seen a better Puck than Lucy Ellison. Lucy Ellison is the first time we’ve seen a Puck to compare with Richard McCabe in the 1989 John Caird production, with his schoolboy jacket, ballet tutu and bovver boots. That was the one with David Troughton as Bottom. Lucy Ellison was waif like, barefoot, tatty DJ with red fairy dust on the shoulders, top hat. In so many productions in the last twenty years, Puck has faded from importance. Here Puck was restored to centrality. She had the audience interaction and looks aside too, and was given echo for some speeches.
Chu Omambala (Oberon) with Lucy Ellison (Puck)
Chu Omambala we both suspect will soon be lost to Hollywood. He has both the looks and the intense charisma. His lithe, white suited Oberon was magnificent, ever moving, ever watching. We also got that Oberon / Puck duo power of the very best versions of the play. Maybe Ayesha Dharkar as well would have been too much for us!
Physical casting was considered. Sam Redford’s tall beefily English Theseus towered above everybody. Lila Clements filling in for Hippolyta looked snooty and haughty … I’m sure Laura Harding would have played it the same way. There was plenty of costume too. When we see Theseus and Hippolyta with the sleeping lovers in the forest, they’re clad in tweedy 1940 hunting gear. In the wedding scene, we have evening dress with a sash for Theseus, and shimmering white frocks for all three brides. Even Egeus gets full RAF gear in the first scene, a greatcoat in the forest, and RAF ceremonial evening wear for the wedding.
Hermia (Mercy Ojelade) and Demetrius (Chris Nayak). Lysander on right. Puck and Oberon watching from the steps.
This is a young cast, as befits a tour. “RSC DEBUT SEASON” is all over the programme. On to the lovers. Demetrius played by Chris Nayak has a pinstripe suit, slicked down hair and is smarmily deferential to his would-be father-in-law, Egeus. Lysander is in contrasting light coloured flannels. Hermia and Helena get 1940s frocks. The physical contrast is written into the text. Laura Riseborough was a tall English rose, while Hermia (usually dark-haired) was Mercy Ojelade. Laura reminded me of Miranda Hart, and I realized that the deliberate casting of the 6 foot Miranda Hart with the 5 foot Sally Hadland in the Miranda TV series was a Helena / Hermia contrast on a weekly basis. The best part of the play, since Peter Brooks brought out the physicality, is the Hermia / Helena fight. It is always flat out now, though in this one, Hermia got spun a full 360 degrees by Demetrius and Lysander. The fight got a huge laugh. When Helena calls Hermia a “dwarf”, Ben Goffe dashes on from the wings and smacks Lysander on the leg then keeps on running. Two reviews say Ben Goffe is “vertically challenged”. I don’t know if that’s joke PC speech, but “vertically challenged” suggests a shortish chap with slightly raised heels on his shoes, while Ben Goffe is a dwarf … I hope that’s not non-PC. As they were going for and getting flat out audience hilarity at this point, they were perhaps over-sensitive to cut Helena’s other insult to Hermia, “Ethiop” or African, which I guess is technically accurate. There is a series of things which suggests that as well as tall and short, Helena and Hermia were intended to be blonde and brunette. Hermia is called “tawny” and a “raven” compared to Helena’s “dove.” Raven v Dove is black and white. Those were retained. Yes, yet another excellent set of full on physical lovers in the fight scene. We expect Hermia to be little and fierce and we expect a doleful, self-pitying and gangling Helena. I thought Demetrius’s smarminess was a particularly good touch, and something not always done.
L to R: Hermia, Lysander, Demetrius, Helena
On the rhymes, there are a number in the text where “eye” rhymes with another word by forcing the second word from an “ee” sound at the end to an “eye” sound. Other productions have made a joke of forcing the rhyme, but they ignored it entirely here and gave the second word its natural modern pronunciation. One of the many arguments for Shakespeare using a short-a sound (as in Northern England and the USA) are rhymes like “pass” with “ass.” Here they retained the modern Southern long-a “parse” but had a short-a “ass.” Not important, but a choice, and unusually, one I noticed.
We’ve done the professionals. I’m wondering if I have my eye on seeing this production elsewhere so retaining the above and altering the below!
First the children. There will be 580 involved … or 58 groups of ten … during the tour. This is in itself, wonderful. The kids looked great in their 1940 costumes. Seeing them go on and off in line holding hands was a pageant in itself. Domenic Cavendish’s review thought the lullaby the children sing to lull Titania to sleep “a ghastly dirge.” My interval note was “utterly charming.”
The Bear Pit Company, Bottom (David Mears) on piano stool
More Bear Pit
It’s what all the reviews say about the amateurs and the pros. You cannot see the joins. I was fascinated. I’m sure David Mears will forgive me saying he was a huge Bottom (a joke that is inevitable when reviewing productions of this play), but he was. He has a fabulous vocal range and used it to the full. This was as striding a stagestruck Bottom as you will ever find. Physical contrast was considered again. Charlotte Froud was a tiny, Welsh-accented Snug / Lion. I loved the lion’s head, basically coils of shaved wood, as befits a joiner. Bottom as Pyramus had the top of his Greek helmet represented by three paintbrushes in similar style. Shirley Allwork as Starveling the tailor, was grey-haired, an older lady. Her reactions to the courtly watchers comments on her lantern as moon were very funny. Roger Ganner was Peter Quince, trying to run the rehearsal, and manage the show as it went on. Dominic Skinner was the bearded Flute, inevitably cast as Thisbe in long yellow dress and long white underpants and forced t speak high. David Southeard was Snout the Tinker who plays the wall (ah, a part I have done as an amateur!). I’m glad I didn’t have to do what he did so brilliantly. In this case the “chink” was between his legs, with the obvious accident, and at one point he has to wobble violently as the over-enthusiastic Bottom kneads his buttocks. So an excellent play within a play. The missing sword is a bit I’ve seen before, but they added an element which I’ll remember. No ploy spoiler. It was heart-warming to see them all get so much rapturous applause.
On the curtain calls, another “full marks” (of so many) to director Erika Whyman. There is a way of doing these things. The front should be taken by the principals in the story, not by the most famous … and the lovers should and did stand at the front. I still remember the lovers being elbowed aside for the bows by Jonathan Slinger in the clown part in the RSC All’s Well That End Well. It was done right here.
The music … the whole play starts with a sequence with Puck and the pianist competing on the piano (the grand piano later forms Titania’s bower), so that Puck bookends the play. The musicians have to take part too as extra fairies. The 1940s jazzy score worked for me.
We booked to see one of the “post-tour” performances in Stratford in July.
SO SEE ALSO: A Midsummer Night’s Dream RSC 2016 Revisited Stratford, (July) for a review of the same production five months later, with a different set of Mechanicals from Belfast.
RATING * * * * *
I think you will have guessed from the above that it’s an unequivocal five stars.
The concept, by Erika Whyman, deserves an extra star again, but it’s already got top rating.
At last! Something to criticize! I keep all my RSC programmes in a row on a shelf. They have been uniform A4 size for years. The Midsummer Night’s Dream is smaller format and style. The content is the usual high standard. Actually, I know enough about printing to accept the inevitable. They have to reprint the programme for every venue because of the amateur companies pages and children’s school pages. Their normal large format requires a long print run to get it at an economic £4 price, and all credit to the RSC, they knocked off 50p for this one. Well, I’m sorry. It’s gone in The Globe / Sam Wanamaker Playhouse section.
However, the synopsis, always an RSC strong point in getting the length down to an instant reminder of the plot, is printed in tiny text in pale grey. Being The Dream, I never even glanced at it until afterwards, but it’s in the wrong font size and colour. There is stuff they could drop to give it a page of its own.
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
- The Globe, 2016, directed by Emma Rice
- A Midsummer Night’s Dream – BBC TV SCREEN version 2016
- A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Bristol Old Vic Theatre School, 2016
- A Midsummer Night’s Dream RSC 2016 Revisited
- A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Bath Theatre Royal, 2016
Love’s Labour’s Won, (Much Ado About Nothing), RSC 2014, Borachio
PETER HAMILTON DYER
The Changeling, Wanamaker Playhouse, 2015