A Midsummer Night’s Dream – September 2011

Experience: 8/10

By William Shakespeare

Directed by Nancy Meckler

Venue: RST

Date: Tuesday 13th September 2011

We enjoyed this performance much more tonight, partly because we were better able to see past the stifling effects of the concept, partly because the original Hermia was back, but mainly because the whole cast seemed to have relaxed into their parts, making the conceptual aspects less at odds with the play. I often feel with this type of production that the longer it goes on, the less influence the director has, and the better the performances get as a result. So it was tonight, and the only down side was that they had a trial evacuation at the end of the performance, so we couldn’t applaud as much as we would have liked.

Other than Hermia and the overall improvements performance-wise, I didn’t notice any specific changes, but I do remember a lot more detail, so here goes. The performance (as opposed to the pre-show stuff) began with a bang – the boiler or whatever blowing up under the trapdoor. This led to the mechanicals’ entrance, and after some banging sounds from below, the lights came up again. I noticed Demetrius arrive this time; he was carrying a metal briefcase, and looked like a bag man who’d been out collecting protection money for his gang boss. When Theseus arrived, he put on his jacket and was handed Hippolyta’s passport by Philostrate. From the feedback next morning, not everyone spotted this, which is a weakness of this production – lots going on, but not necessarily being seen by the audience. At least Theseus’s delivery was stronger tonight, which helped a lot. I’d forgotten it last time, but he offers Hippolyta a flashy diamond necklace as well as the flower – it was hidden in the bouquet – and she rejects them both.

I was surprised when I saw Hermia this time. With her short hairstyle and black 60s frock, she looked about thirty, which is much too old for Hermia. I did adjust to this look after a short while – the understudy had seemed very young – but Matti Houghton’s performance was definitely stronger, and the humour of the lovers’ arguments was clearer as a result.

After the mechanicals have had their first meeting, the fairies enter, and this time there seemed to more of them everywhere. There were also two characters at the back, in black suits and wearing strange masks – apparently these were elves! Anyway, the fairies did the vampire hiss a lot, but without the fangs, and were suitably menacing. Puck was much more animated tonight, which worked well, and I noticed his costume was draped with ties, suggestive of the dream state perhaps, but from the feedback session the next day it was another confusing aspect of the production.

Despite my previous notes, Lysander and Hermia went to sleep on the ground, no chairs, and I’d forgotten that Hermia wiggled her way into a sleeping bag to go to sleep. Tonight she also brushed her teeth, using water from a flask – obviously a girl guide, always prepared. When Lysander wakes up and falls for Helena, he almost sings her name, and as it’s a black actor playing Lysander, he can get away with semi-rap now and later when extolling Helena’s virtues etc.

I paid more attention to the mechanicals’ rehearsal tonight, and it was very good fun. When Bottom was explaining how they can get away with having a lion on stage, he stands behind Snug and uses his arms to demonstrate the speech. Snug was in the process of eating something at the time, and there’s a lot of humour in the way he keeps trying to get the food in his mouth as his arm flies past his face, and misses. He does sneak the odd bite – it’s a long section this – and the final bit goes in at the end, getting another laugh.

After Bottom has exited, Flute takes centre stage, wearing a long red wig under his hat, which looked ridiculous and was very funny. He used his normal voice for the lines to begin with, and Quince keeps trying to get him to speak in a higher pitch, but Flute misunderstands. Each time Quince says ’ooh’ (imagine the high pitch, if you will), Flute repeats it, looking puzzled, then carries on with his normal voice for the dialogue. After several attempts, with the ‘ooh’ getting more and more extended, and accompanied by increasingly funny mimes, Quince realises he needs to change tack. He gets some padding – couldn’t see what it was exactly – stuffs it into Flute’s boiler suit to create breasts, and finally Flute gets the message. Unfortunately, he then goes so high and so fast that I couldn’t make out a word – I had the same problem last time – so the actual humour of the lines was lost. But the business was funny all the same.

When Titania reappears with her fairies, they have a small glowing bundle with them to represent the little baby, and they put it in a pram which wasn’t used last time – I suspect this was because they were one fairy short. Titania’s insistence that Bottom must stay in the forest reminded me tonight of Theseus forcing Hippolyta to stay in Athens, another dream connection. Moth was the missing fairy, not Peaseblossom – sorry – but this time the three fairies were worked separately, which helped. The lights didn’t seem to be working so well, though, which lessened the effect.

The interval over, there were lots of fairies on stage for the restart. Puck’s story of the mechanicals and Titania waking up was livelier tonight, and then we’re into the lovers having their bad night in the forest. The fairies threw lots of pillows on the stage, which came in very handy. Demetrius slid a long way on a couple of them during the fighting, and they were thrown around, used for fighting, etc.

After the couples have fallen asleep, woken up, and gone off to be married, only Bottom is left on stage. When he woke up, he was still in the armchair which had been pushed to the back of the stage, facing away from the audience. He fell backwards, tipping the chair over, which started his scene with a laugh.

The start of final scene has the three vice girls doing the Philomel song in harmony, standing at the microphone at the back. When Philostrate takes the microphone forward later on, he puts his hand over it when he’s trying to persuade Theseus that Pyramus and Thisbe isn’t the right entertainment for him. When Theseus insists, he bangs his head gently against the mike in frustration. I was disappointed that they cut a lot of his lines; he just talked about the few words and the tediousness, but didn’t cover the tragedy which made him cry tears of mirth part.

The set for Pyramus and Thisbe was on a fork lift which carried it onto the stage with plenty of health-and-safety beeping. As it came forward, Bottom and Flute, I think, were trying to fix the poles for the curtain in place, but couldn’t manage it until the platform had been set down.

There was a lot more humour in tonight’s Pyramus and Thisbe. All the performances had more detail, and there was even a bit of audience participation. After Demetrius had done some heckling, the player was looking at him (possibly Moonshine?) and he, coward that he is, was pointing at a member of the audience – not me this time, although Demetrius and Helena were on the walkway just beside us. In revenge, the audience member stole his champagne glass and had a sip – Demetrius was quick to move the bottle out of reach! Alex Hassell’s keen on the unexpected, so he was probably well pleased with this interaction.

Moonshine was having a difficult time all round. His dog, made of some piece of extending equipment, had become tangled up in its lead and then fell over. We were all laughing at him, poor chap. He got out of it OK, though, and then had the usual strop at the on stage audience.

Snug as the lion was very funny again. His footsteps were given sound effects by Snout, and he obviously wasn’t prepared for this – he leapt like a startled fawn the first time it happened. When he realised what was happening, he had some fun with it, prancing around the stage and then tapping a foot to one side, just to make the sound. He forgot a few of his lines and needed to be prompted, including forgetting his own name, and I noticed this time that his mane was made of large paintbrushes.

Wall had to work very hard to keep Pyramus and Thisbe apart tonight. They kissed during the wall scene, which surprised everyone, and then had a really good snog behind the curtain, which caused another stir in the court. Pyramus’s death scene was very funny. He was wearing dustbin lids for armour, and once he was dead, his body rolled this way and that – towards one set of lovers, then back, then towards the other set and back again, then towards the royal couple and back. All the while the dustbin lids are clattering away – we could hardly hear ourselves laugh! For Thisbe’s speech, there was a hint of the more serious possibilities, but then Flute delivered the line ‘his eyes were green as leeks’ so well it got a huge laugh. Pyramus’s dead body had to move back into position for Thisbe’s final speech, and when she fell forward, dead, she landed face first in Pyramus’s crotch – more sensation! And very good fun.

The final mechanicals’ song was setting up to be all folksy, but then the heavy metal started up and everyone except Quince joined in. He stood there, holding a large recorder, looking stunned. It was their rock music that blew the fuse again, which ended the revels. They were sent down into the basement to fix it – sounds of banging, then lights came up again, gently – and that led into the ending of the play with the blessings.

As already mentioned, there was a practice evacuation tonight, so after one round of bows the actors were ushered off, and the audience was given instructions to leave in stages. Whether it would be this civilised if there were an actual fire, I have no idea, but we were orderly and well-behaved tonight, if a little disappointed that we couldn’t show our appreciation more.

© 2011 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

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