By William Shakespeare
Directed by Sean Holmes
Venue: Minerva Theatre
Date: Tuesday 6th December 2011
We nearly didn’t make this one! Some problem on the lower road meant it was closed, so everyone was using the A27 causing massive congestion…well I’ll spare us all the gory details. Let’s just say we took an hour and a half to get to the theatre, dinner was a very rushed main course (god bless those folks in the restaurant), but we made it to our seats just in time, thank goodness. Mind you, the cast kept us waiting for several minutes, and one didn’t turn up at all! More traffic problems, apparently. Ah well.
The Minerva looked like it was set up for a concert instead of a play. There were keyboards, mixing decks, microphones, etc. spread round the stage in a kind of semi-circle, with a few extra seats at the back. Nothing else for a set that I could see, although a few props and furniture came on when needed. This was our first experience of Filter’s work, and we were expecting the unexpected. They duly obliged.
To being with, a chap came on, speaking in an Irish accent (not his ‘normal’ accent, but he’s bi-accented at the very least) and basically did a fifteen minute stand-up routine, introducing us to the play, getting us to introduce ourselves as well, and also giving a long explanation about the guest actor who would be playing Bottom tonight. Apparently they couldn’t get their regular Bottoms for this pre-Christmas tour, so they’ve ended up having guest Bottoms, a different one each night. Tonight’s guest would be well known to many us, having performed at Chichester many times before, and the younger members of the audience would probably know him better for Star Trek: The Next Generation and The X-Men. He built him up big before announcing that tonight Bottom would be played by Sir Patrick Stewart, only to be left hanging as the great man failed to appear. Instead, the stage manager for the company came on at the back of the stage, and beckoned him over. We couldn’t hear their conversation, but we got the gist; Sir Patrick wouldn’t be making it tonight.
Of course, we knew this was all part of the act, but it was so well delivered that we enjoyed it very much. Now how would they manage to keep going without someone to play Bottom? Well, it just so happened there was a willing volunteer in the audience, not an actor as such, but he was in a band (there was a slight problem about insurance until he mentioned he was in the Musicians Union) and how hard could it be? Steve, his name was, and we were so relieved that the play had been rescued at the last minute! He was given a script, told to read the bits after ‘Bottom’, and then stop when he came to someone else’s name.
This all took about fifteen minutes, and since the whole show was only due to run for about one hour forty, it was clear there was going be some heavy duty cutting. And how! Theseus and Hippolyta only got a few lines about their impending marriage before starting a little dance – very romantic – and then Egeus brought on three of the troublesome teenagers for a brisk trot through the highlights of that scene. One actress was sitting at the back all this while, and I realised she must be Helena – she was. Exits and entrances were kept simple, just the actors walking off the main central acting space, and then they mainly went and sat down somewhere till their next stint. One point – when Theseus explained the Athenian law to Hermia, Steve, waiting to play Bottom, commented ‘that’s harsh’, which was funny. It also meant no one else had to comment on it, although Hippolyta did stomp off early. Theseus’s line ‘What cheer, my love’ became rather distorted, into ‘What? Cheer! My love.’ – I can’t represent it accurately here, but it got a good laugh.
The mechanicals were next up, and while they used some of Will’s dialogue, especially Bottom, they soon shifted into contemporary mode. This meant that Quince was effectively dealing with an awkward sod of an amateur actor – sound familiar? – and this got the sense of the scene across very well. Oh, and Steve was now wearing a Bottom suit which had been made for Patrick Stewart – fortunately it fitted Steve perfectly – which gave him a big belly and what looked like furry brown dungarees. The cast were down to Bottom, Quince, Flute and Snug, but they managed very well, considering.
For the general fairies, they used electronically altered voices, which made the dialogue harder to hear, but was a good effect. Oberon was in a blue Lycra bodysuit with gold lame cape, acting the superhero. He even flew off stage by using a wheelie stool which he lay on – hence the arm in a sling for the rest of the performance. Jonathan Broadbent had played Puck three times before, so for fun they decided to ‘miscast’ him and Ferdy Roberts this time round. Jonathan played Oberon and Ferdy played Puck, making him a stagehand cum handyman complete with utility belt.
For the lovers’ trip to the woods, Hermia had prepared better than any other Hermia I’ve seen. Coolbox, two folding chairs and a tent-in-a-bag. Lysander only had a small rucksack and a map, which wasn’t doing him any good as they were lost. (Hasn’t been watching James May’s Man Lab, obviously.) Hermia set up the tent in the middle of the stage, and soon climbed into it. I forget how it happened, but I think this was where some of the other cast members put a microphone right by the tent so we could eavesdrop on what went on. Nothing much of course, despite some suggestive tent-wiggles, and soon Lysander was back outside again, settling down in one of the chairs for the night. This was where Puck anoints his eyes – two squirts of Fairy Liquid – and then Demetrius and Helena stumbled on the scene. No risk of Lysander falling for anyone else as far as I could see.
The mechanicals’ rehearsal started off in the traditional manner, but Quince was soon off on a mini-rant about being expected to write a prologue for their play! Like he didn’t have enough things to do already! Moonshine and Wall hardly got a mention, and to keep things simple, Bottom’s head remained unadorned after his ‘transformation’, and they left it all to acting and our imaginations. Given that Puck had been sitting in one of the aisles, eating a pasty, while Bottom was off stage, I wondered at the time how he was going to effect the change, but I never thought they’d simply leave it out altogether. Mind, you, it worked really well, and better than some of the elaborate donkey heads we’ve seen.
Being a musician, Steve isn’t content with a plain, ordinary rendering of Bottom’s song. Oh no, he reckoned it would make a good doo-wop number, so with backing vocals from the lovers, he took to the microphone and gave us a very pleasant version of this number. Titania had been lying on a cushion near the front of the stage; now she woke up, and with only a few lines from the other fairies, they’re off.
The lovers’ arguments were OK, edited of course, but not so much as earlier. Demetrius did some funky dance moves and sang quite a lot when he was converted back to loving Helena, which was funny. When Oberon turned up wanting to know how the practical joke on Titania had worked out, he used a walkie-talkie to call Puck, inserting ‘over’ at the end of his lines. The response was a bit crackly, but as the fairy himself turned up during the conversation, we didn’t have any problems understanding it all. When Puck’s error was discovered, Oberon became really nasty, using a taser effect to punish him – this wasn’t fun to watch. Still, Puck had a good point about the Athenian garments, and soon the two fairies settled down on the folding chairs to enjoy the entertainment. They also enjoyed some drinks from the coolbox – Fosters for Puck and an orange drink for Oberon – and a couple of rolls, though those were mainly used for the bread fight later on when the lovers got really stroppy with each other. The fairies joined in.
Earlier on, when Oberon first saw Helena and Demetrius, he did the ‘I am invisible’ line and paused, like he was waiting for a special effect. He was holding his hand up and tried another spot on the stage – still nothing. Eventually Puck helped him out by putting him in the right place, and there was a fairy-like sound to indicate fairy-power at work. Good fun. During the argument session amongst the lovers, Hermia stormed off in a sulk, saying ‘I’m invisible’, which got a good laugh.
When Puck brought the lovers back together to sleep, he tucked them all up in the tent, and I could see them arranging themselves so they could all fit in. Then he yanked Lysander’s head out of the tent to squirt his eyes again to remove the spell, shoving him back in with little care. Titania, who had been snuggled down with Bottom on the cushion, was woken up by Oberon, and they had a little dance before heading off. The lovers woke up, and with only a few of their lines, they headed off stage – no hunting, no Theseus and Hippolyta. Then Bottom woke up, and again was off stage pretty quickly, followed swiftly by the scene with the mechanicals and Bottom arriving back. Incidentally, Steve made it quite clear that Bottom was very well hung when in his ass disguise.
One of the biggest cuts was in this last act, where we skipped straight to the mechanicals’ performance of Pyramus and Thisbe. Actually, Quince came out and chatted to a man in the audience along from us, pretending he was the Duke, and arranging for the play to be performed. Then they performed it. Thisbe was in a fancy frock, and the whole dress came off instead of just a scarf. Snug the Joiner was a cute lion, and Puck was doing the sound effects for his steps with coconut halves – similar to the recent RSC production. Snug had some fun, prancing around the stage to this accompaniment, and then we basically just get the death scenes, and that’s it. No interaction with an on-stage audience at all in this version.
Well, we do get the epilogue as well, of course. Puck had been doing some clearing up during these final stages, removing the tent, the folding chairs, the coolbox, etc. I half expected him to come on with the broom and start sweeping up some of the debris from the bread fight, but he did it straight as far as I can recall. We duly applauded as usual, and then waited for the post-show discussion.
Almost all the cast came back out after a short while, during which the real stage crew had cleaned up the worst of the mess. From the introductions, we reckon the cast list was something like:
Jonathan Broadbent Oberon/Theseus
James Fortune Francis Flute
Ed Gaughan Peter Quince
Tom Haines Snug
Simon Manyonda Demetrius
Victoria Moseley Hermia
Fergus O’Donnell Steve/Bottom
Ferdy Roberts Puck/Egeus
Rhys Rusbatch Lysander
Gemma Saunders Titania/Hippolyta
Rebecca Scroggs Helena
(They didn’t actually have a cast list in their one-piece-of-A4 program.) They talked about their creative process, the short rehearsals, everyone chipping in, bringing the new people up to speed, the importance of speaking the lines very clearly when you’re messing around with the play so much, and the music. That’s all I can remember for now.
I liked a lot of things about this production. The few remaining Shakespearean lines were delivered very clearly, and although the pace was swift we got the main points of the lovers’ story well enough. The updating of the mechanicals bits were good fun, and gave a very clear idea of what was going on. The fairy frolics were also good fun, with lots of anarchic comedy and silliness, and the music was excellent, using modern styles instead of Shakespearean ones. The main problem I found was that the scenes were more like brief sketches and they tended to peter out, leaving a hiatus before the next scene. This lost a lot of the energy for me, and gave the production an unfocused feeling, which meant it never quite reached any great heights as an experience. Enjoyable enough, but not great. Still, I’d be willing to see more of Filter’s work, so I do hope Chichester will be able to fit them in again.
© 2011 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me