A Midsummer Night’s Dream
By William Shakespeare
Sell a door Theatre Company
5th February 2013
Directed by Bryn Holding
This was the very first night of what looks like an arduous tour of one night and two night stands, and like rock tours perusing the list shows some gruelling journeys. Fortunately the cast is young, energetic and fresh. We need more of Sell a door’s sort of work on tour: getting Shakespeare to some smaller places, having (mainly) schools audiences in fits of laughter, and all at a third or less of major theatre ticket prices.
The company’s youth, and energy is not at the expense of quality of acting. All nine of the cast were first rate, and could be slotted easily into an RSC or Globe or NT production, though as the theatre goes they may have to wait a while for the opportunity.
Opening scene: Theseus listens to Aegeus
Using nine doesn’t just mean doubling up, as shown in the cast list, but for most of them tripling up because they play the fairies too, quadrupling if you separate being a rude mechanical from the play within a play. First rate stage management is on display, with people changing costume in seconds, and everyone involved in set changes. They also have distinctly different characters, voices and expressions as they shift roles. I particularly noted Katy Soby’s powerful Helena, transforming through 180 degrees into Snug, playing the most timid of lions, as well as Elliot Fitzpatrick bringing different brands of humour to Lysander and Flute / Thisbe.
The production notes say they wanted to explore the harsher side of the play. We didn’t pick that up at all. It seemed a straightforward 2013 production of the play, worked to a minimum cast size. We didn’t detect any innovation in production. It was way less “off” or quirky than Filter’s minimal version, but then that’s really something different, and had a larger cast.
Titania and Oberon
By a 2013 production, I mean that there were good ideas from several modern productions in there (I think it’s the third time I’ve seen Hermia enter the forest with a case on roller wheels and a sleeping bag). Helena reminded me of the RSC 2011 production, and as in that, was an outstanding role. The lovers scene in the forest was done with full physical theatricality, and that leaping, catching, rolling and tumbling requires meticulous choreography and rehearsal, and to get it so split-second right the first night of a run is a major achievement. The lovers were all brilliant, funny, physical, and they have a lovely range of facial expressions when acting in the background too.
The Pyramus and Thisbe play within a play did what it says on the packet: hilarity all around, people roaring with laughter. Was there any innovation? There was a ton of business, most of it I’ve seen, but it’s comic timing that counts and this had it. The lion was as timid as I’ve seen it, the wall did add a new idea, Thisbe’s business with hair getting in the mouth was great. Bottom was Bottom. On Bottom, the production veered to the conservative in the scenes with Titania: no phallic jokes, no pointing of lines like “get him some nuts” but they want teachers to book their 2014 touring Shakespeare comedy.
It’s an important note, that all this would be new and a revelation to the school’s audience they’re packing in, and the play is brought to such life that it will pleasantly surprise a lot of the sixth formers, who hopefully will end up like us passing the dozen in number of productions. This is a great evening to start on the Dream and a great evening to start on Shakespeare. The applause and cheering were well-deserved.
OK, the negatives. This has to tour to Guildhalls and Town Halls, so Poole Lighthouse would be a better-equipped theatre than most. But you have to restrict set and lighting to what you can tour, and you can’t say to yourself, ‘Oh, we’ve got way more lights in this theatre …’ As a result, I found lighting quite simple. The set is flexible, but the forest of green paper umbrellas doesn’t do much at all, and the gold foil moon looks naff, because it is naff. The portable doors are a good device, and a well-executed device, but could be more interesting in style or colour. If you’re going basic for the set, and you have no choice with a tour, the “basic” needs more style.
The set: Puck left
We both thought costume let it down. Costume is the one thing that’s easy to move from stage to stage. So, you make the wise decision to go quirky modern … not an unusual choice given limited resources. But a lot of this was either dull, or odd. The Theseus / Oberon differentiation was done by Joseph Kapp very well: full rich voice for Oberon, somewhat nerdy edge for Theseus, but both costumes were just odd. Since Peter Brooks production, doubling Theseus / Oberon and Hippolyta / Titania is the default version of the play, and usually you go with the idea that Oberon is the dream Theseus and you differentiate costume rather than character.
Why a green DJ for Demetrius? Puck’s costume oddness is a given that goes back to John Caird’s production but it didn’t click for me here, though “Puck doesn’t click here” has been my comment on every version of the Dream since John Caird. They say it was Puck as a clown, and the clown reference in the costume … shorts, red Converse All-Stars, striped socks, yellow mac, wooly hat … is Cirque du Soleil. That’s the way they do a clown, but then they also (like Slava’s Snowshow) use the techniques of classic European circus clowning, which won’t shoehorn on to Puck, in spite of very good acting in the part.
Some oddness worked … Helena, Hippolyta, possibly Titania. The grey fairy costumes worked. The rude mechanicals all looked OK. I didn’t think Theseus, Oberon, Lysander or Demetrius had “helpful” costumes.
The rude mechanicals
All in all, great Shakespeare at a bargain price. It would be unfair to make any comparison with the RSC operating at many, many times the budget on a long run without the confines of many different proscenium stages, and a small cast is a virtue, and they exploit that virtue. It’s nothing new, but it is very well played indeed. Highly recommended if it comes your way.
I know it’s the rule not to acknowledge “found” music in theatre programmes. I liked very much the use of original music under the closing speech.
Daydream, written by John Sebastian and performed by The Lovin’ Spoonful got no credit though it appeared twice. It has now. The snatches of more recent pop songs while Puck was looking for stations on the transistor radio (a device that I don’t think worked) were to short to quibble about.
Gratuitous Smoking note
Full marks. None
£2. Fair price. The kids could afford it. Sufficient photos and bios. I’ve often paid £3 or £4 for much thicker programmes, but the extra pages were all adverts. The online school pack material was interesting, and could have been slipped in the programme.
REVIEWS OF OTHER PRODUCTIONS OF “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” on this blog:
A Midsummer Night’s Dream – BBC TV SCREEN version 2016