By William Shakespeare
Directed by Edward Hall
Venue: Yvonne Arnaud Theatre
Date: Tuesday 12th November 2013
Steve saw this production in 2003 in London. I say ‘saw’; an extremely large American chap blocked his view for the first half, and Steve was rather pleased when he didn’t come back after the interval. As we were in the front row tonight, there was no risk of a repeat, although I was a bit concerned about the extent of audience participation when I realised I was right beside one lot of steps up to the stage. I needn’t have worried though; apart from a flying button and some glitter, we were unmolested all night.
The usual Propeller framework was covered in the biggest set of knitted lace curtains I’ve ever seen. Apart from two archway entrances on either side at the front, and another two entrances at the back, the whole area was covered in them. There was a central gap in the back ‘wall’ which also served as a way on and off the stage, and in the middle of the stage stood a house-shaped structure, about three feet high, also covered in a large white cloth which spread itself out around the item it was concealing. There was a ledge running all the way around the back of this space which was made of chairs – it was more robust than it looked – and over the front entrances the chairs became benches; at the start, these were obscured by cloth canopies. Other white sheets were draped from the chairs, and to round it all off, the cast wore mainly white, with mini corsets around their waists, cod pieces in the usual location and long johns for the rest. Their faces were whited up as well, although with all the running around there were noticeable gaps by the end of the evening.
They began with the customary Propeller creep-on technique to assemble the cast on stage without the audience actually noticing, but from our seats in the front row and despite the gloom of the pre-show lighting, we spotted what was going on. There was soon a number of actors staring at us from various positions around the stage, mostly seated on the ground.
The house shape in the middle had been spotlit during the pre-show, and at the start the actors did some mechanical dancing around before removing the cloth, like dolls coming to life. The top of the box underneath was opened up and while the rest of the cast looked on, a pair of legs stuck up out of it and wiggled around a bit. These legs wore striped red stockings while the attached feet wore sparkly red shoes. After the legs disappeared, the top half of Puck emerged. Over his long johns, etc., he wore red braces and a short tutu while the top of his hair was blond and spiky – a wig. He danced around, taking in the whole scene and then the box disappeared – flattened into the floor I later realised.
This set the scene nicely for a Nutcracker-style fairy story. Puck handed out jackets to some of the cast, who helped the opening characters to dress, and soon we were into Hippolyta and Theseus’ first lines. Theseus wore a long, formal jacket, while Hippolyta had a fur coat dangling behind her like a train and there was a fur stole round her neck. I think she also had a fetching little hat. I noticed that all the characters had eyebrows painted on, high above their own; this added to the doll-like impression, as did many of their movements, particularly Hermia’s in this opening scene. When distressed, as she often was, she patted her hands to her chest in a mechanical manner, with the fingers held together and flat like a doll’s hand. This performance style is fine, but I did find it distanced me from the characters. Never mind; their energy soon made up for that minor problem, so although I wasn’t as moved as I can be, the performance brought out the humour brilliantly.
Puck stayed on stage during the opening scene, creeping around the rear of the stage and enjoying the confrontation when Egeus brought his daughter on to complain to the Duke. This did raise the question of Puck’s inability to recognise the young Athenians correctly in the wood later on, but as we learned later he wasn’t the brightest fairy in the pack. The Athenian characters were all introduced clearly and the conflict was well set up, with Lysander’s suggestion to Demetrius that he wed Egeus instead of Hermia finally getting a strong response. (We had a lot of school parties in tonight, so there was plenty of noise from the audience.) Hippolyta wasn’t at all happy about Hermia’s limited choices, especially the ‘death’ alternative, and the way she flicked her train behind her before marching off made it clear that Theseus was in for a spot of frostbite if he tried to get near her that evening. Puck also left when the Duke did, so the lovers were left truly alone.
At least they were until Helena marched across the front of the stage carrying a suitcase. She was nearly off the other side before Hermia managed to call her back, and after listening to Hermia’s tale, Helena wasn’t impressed by her friend’s little difficulties. Lysander’s reaction when Hermia began to tell Helena their secret made it clear that he wasn’t keen to reveal their planned elopement to Helena, but he recovered his composure in time to tell her everything himself. Helena’s choice to betray them to Demetrius was a sign of how obsessed she was; desperate for any contact with the object of her adoration, she was willing to trash a female friendship in a trice.
They were delivering the lines with machine-gun rapidity so it wasn’t long before we met the mechanicals. They came on individually but singing the same song, and they were all wearing some sort of working garment. Bottom had a wool cap and a workman’s belt, with a small stick of string dangling from the front. Quince had a brown coat, and the others had suitable dungarees or whatever. Bottom seemed content with the part of Pyramus at first, but soon gave us his audition piece for the role of a tyrant. On “prison gates” he threw himself on the ground and the others applauded, thinking it was all over. But Bottom got up, continued to the end of the speech and stood, arms outstretched, waiting for their applause. Nothing; they’d done their bit, so he had to wiggle his hand at them to make them start up again.
Flute was very funny, although that was mainly because he looked so glum and/or cross throughout. He was a tall lad, and completely free from any signs of facial hair (how un-Propeller-like). His complaint “I have a beard” was patently false, so after a pause he added “Coming”. This didn’t work either. None of the men was happy with a woman’s part – no wonder they were keen to play Wall and Moonshine later on. Snug, bless ‘im, was very slow. Bottom tried out the lion’s part as well, and gave a questioning roar in response to Quince’s insistence that he play Pyramus.
The spirits returned in their long johns – this choice of costume allowed almost all the cast to double as fairies – and took down the cloths from the ledge. They ran around a bit and ended up in a circular seated pose, with each fairy sitting in the lap of the one behind. Puck appeared in the middle of the group, and after he climbed out of the fairy ring the others fell down asleep. Puck looked around again and finally came over to wake up one of the fairies, which brought them all out of the doze. They formed a fairy chorus, and were delighted with Puck’s stories of mischief-making. They were so taken with the final tale that they did the legs-in-air laugh from The Life Of Brian.
For the entrances of Titania and Oberon, the fairies pulled down the cloths which were draped over the benches on top of the archways to reveal the king and queen of fairyland sitting underneath. Both were wearing black: Titania had black stockings, a white skirt, lacy black sleeves and a large feathered collar over her long johns. Oberon wore black trousers and a black cloak with hints of dark red, plus a dark red cummerbund. Titania also had black makeup, including an excessive amount of lipstick and eye shadow. They stayed on their respective benches for the first part of their spat, with the baby being brought on through Titania’s archway and held out towards Oberon by her fairies.
Their argument was very strong, and after Titania swept off stage with her entourage, Oberon was quick to plan his revenge. While Puck was off stage getting the required flower, Demetrius and Helena turned up and Oberon paused their movement for a few seconds to tell us he was invisible and would stick around to see what happened. Helena was very physical with Demetrius, throwing him on the ground and the like. His threat to harm her was somewhat silly after that display, and his retreat seemed like the sensible choice. When Puck returned, there was an actual flower for once, and in typical Propeller style they palmed it when needed and produced it later as if by magic.
Titania returned to the stage to have a little kip and her fairies brought on one of the sheets for her, lifting it up by the four corners before allowing it to float down onto the stage. We had thought she might have slept up on one of the benches, but instead she was on the cold ground; she didn’t seem to mind. The fairies left her sleeping on her side, with the sheet partially draped over her. Oberon emerged from under the part of the sheet which was behind her and with a wave of his hand, the guard fairy was knocked unconscious; he dangled from the bars of the archway. After anointing Titania’s eyes with the flower, Oberon did at least cover her up with the sheet before he left which meant that she became the “bank” on which Hermia laid her head – neat.
Lysander was also very physical tonight, getting on top of Hermia and having to be pushed off very firmly. He did offer her a teddy bear – aahhh – but even that powerful love token didn’t do the trick. She gave it back to him and he tucked it in his pocket before settling down to sleep with his back to the left archway. They blew kisses to each other, catching them in a revoltingly soppy manner, and once he nodded off, the rest of the cast who were huddled in the corners used harmonica sounds to indicate deep breathing.
Puck finally found his “Athenian youth” and lifted him upright while talking to us. He had to dash back and catch Lysander before he fell over, but then he laid him down again and did the magic flower bit. Demetrius and Helena made their entrance crawling along the ledge at the back, which was entertaining enough, but then Helena had to get down from there when she spotted Lysander. Her method of choice for the descent, not without misgivings and several cries of alarm, was to turn around and lower herself down from the ledge. When she was hanging there with her legs kicking about, she realised she was only a couple of feet above the ground and dropped the rest of the way with a nonchalance which had been conspicuously absent up to then.
Perhaps to represent the spell he was under, Lysander’s dialogue became a bit clunky after he woke up, with pauses at the end of each line emphasising the verse. This added to the humour, and I was enjoying the scene until he offered the teddy bear to Helena – shock, horror! What a betrayal! Helena spurned him – quite right too – but she cast a lingering look at the teddy bear as she left, and after a short pause, while Lysander just stood there, she ran back on and grabbed it from him.
During the dialogue between Lysander and Helena, we could see Hermia growing more and more disturbed in her sleep, an accurate reflection of what was happening on stage. As her dream became more terrifying, she rolled around more vigorously; the fairies came on and removed the sheet she had been lying on, while Titania snuck off at the back. With Hermia lying on the ground, the fairies lifted the sheet up over her so it billowed out and then took it away altogether.
Hermia was soon off stage herself, and then the mechanicals arrived for their rehearsal, probably singing another song. When they were sorting out some of the play’s problems, Snug tried to carry out Bottom’s suggestions for his speech, saying the words after him until Bottom started providing him with too many options and went too fast – it didn’t take long. Bottom did leave room for Snug to insert his own name, but by this time he was so confused that it came out as “Jug the snoiner”. The others corrected him, while we laughed. Snug was so pleased to find that the moon would be shining on the night of their performance that he punched the air several times to celebrate, with an emphatic “yes” inserted into the dialogue. His celebration briefly interrupted Quince’s suggestion that someone play Moonshine; the assembled cast responded to this innovative idea with an approving “Oooo”. There was another “Oooo” after Bottom’s Wall suggestion, and then they prepared themselves for their rehearsal, with one chap’s script having to be turned the right way up.
At this point Puck arrived and froze them in place so he could check out what was going on. Thisbe responded with a “yes” the first two times that Bottom said her name, and had to clamp her hand over her mouth to stop herself from doing it a third time. Puck followed Bottom off, while Thisbe gave her lines clearly and carefully and with much concentration. When Bottom reappeared, his woolly hat had two long ears sticking up from it, he had fuller teeth and was wearing gloves, and the small reel of string had expanded considerably – it nearly touched the floor. His companions were totally freaked out by this change and ran off as fast as they could, not easy when there’s a fairy about making everything go in slow motion.
Said fairy was also in the front left corner when Bottom was walking about, trying to keep his spirits up. Puck had a pair of coconut shells, and made hoof sounds whenever Bottom took a step. (This went on until Bottom was finally returned to human form.) Titania came through the archway to find out who was singing, and when her four fairies came on, they trotted with their hands held up and formed a horse shape when they came to a halt.
To take Bottom off stage, the front and sides of the box were lifted up again and Bottom put inside. Titania put a carrot in his mouth to shut him up. He then went down out of sight, and a smaller box was lifted up and given to Titania. The sides of the larger box were then let down again so we could see that Bottom had disappeared, and for good measure there was a braying sound which seemed to come from the box as Titania took it off stage. The fairies sang a song while all of this was happening, and as they took the interval, only Bottom’s woolly hat with the ears was left in the middle of the stage, spotlit as the box had been at the start.
During the interval, the cast sang songs out in the foyer in order to collect money for charity; I forget the name of this particular charity, but it helps children with genetic disorders. The songs included All I Have To Do Is Dream and Daydream Believer – very appropriate. For the restart, the fairies made the box up again and the smaller box was re-inserted. With Oberon sitting on one of the benches, Puck came out of the box again, this time wearing Bottom’s woolly hat with the ears. The box fell flat to the floor (with a bit of help – one of the sections didn’t fall properly and had to be helped into place) and as Puck told his boss the story of Titania’s infatuation, the mechanicals came on stage to re-enact the earlier events for Oberon’s benefit. There was some lovely slow motion stuff, especially the horrified reactions of the others to Bottom’s transformation. Puck put the hat back on Bottom’s head at the appropriate moment, almost removing his own wig when he took the hat off, and after the mechanicals had escaped again, Titania came on to illustrate her previous entrance. She grabbed Bottom and ran off with him, leaving the stage to Oberon and Puck.
But not for long. Soon they were joined by Demetrius and Hermia, and the fairies froze the young people twice briefly to identify each one. Puck sprinkled some glitter over Demetrius to put him to sleep, and made his “Tartar’s bow” exit twice. He went in the wrong direction first time, and when he came back to leave on the other side, he paused for a moment to consider repeating his exit line but decided against it; we laughed anyway.
The row amongst the young lovers was very entertaining. The dialogue was still very brisk, and the details of their reactions to each other were nicely done. Helena made signs to Hermia to indicate that she wasn’t responsible for Lysander falling in love with her. She began to enjoy the idea of Demetrius complimenting her when she was listing all the nice things he was now saying about her, but she broke off from her pleasurable thoughts to be angry with Hermia over her involvement in the “confederacy”. Her choice of the word “puppet” to describe Hermia’s height shortfall was definitely a mistake; Helena herself clapped her hands over her mouth as soon as the word was out, and for all her stroppiness earlier she was quick to avoid the reach of Hermia’s fingers. The men grabbed Hermia at one point and put her on the ground by the front of the stage. As she struggled to be free and get at Helena, they were torn between holding her down and fighting each other; the resulting tangle of angry bodies was very funny. This also explains the flying button I mentioned earlier. Mind you, once she was riled, Hermia gave as good as she got, with “painted maypole” in particular upsetting Helena. The men snapped each other’s braces as they prepared to go off and fight, and we got Hermia’s “I am amazed, and know not what to say” this time.
To prevent the fight there was darkness and smoke, with the smoke machine being brought on and pointed through Puck’s legs to do its work. Each of the men was spotlit as they said their lines, while Puck mouthed the opponent’s dialogue which was actually spoken by the relevant actor. Puck also had a torch which he shone upwards to light his own face. With the four Athenians on the ground asleep, Puck wasn’t entirely sure which chap to remove the spell from, but eventually he used a white flower to remove the spell from Lysander’s eyes, and gave him back the teddy bear as well – sweet. He hesitated over the line “two of both kinds make up…”, which is how we knew he hadn’t spent much time in fairy school, but he did come up with the right answer in the end.
The lovers were spread around the place after this bit, but obligingly rolled to the edges of the stage for the next scene. Two large cushions were brought on for Bottom’s comfort, and soon Pease-blossom, Mustard-seed and the rest were scratching away at Bottom’s hairy head for all they were worth. All apart from Cobweb, who was very unhappy to be sent to fetch a honey-bag. At some point Bottom started singing Little Donkey, and eventually he and Titania fell asleep, he on the cushions and her resting her head on his leg. After Oberon removed her enchantment and woke her up, there was fairy music, supplied this time by two cellists standing at the back. Bottom simply got up and snuck off at the back of the stage while the cushions were removed in preparation for the arrival of Theseus and Hippolyta.
This changeover was done to a jolly hunting song – don’t know the title – while the lovers rolled themselves a little way back towards the middle of the stage. For once Theseus’ comment about his hounds was simply confirming that Hippolyta was in for a treat, as his hounds were the same type as those she was praising, and in this portrayal she looked disappointed to miss out on the promised treat. However, she was back on good terms with Theseus again, as were the young couples with each other. Even Bottom, despite being back to the small stick of twine, was relatively cheerful as he headed back to Athens, so everything was set for a happy ending.
Or was it? The mechanicals came on with a wicker hamper, ready to give the performance of their lives before the Duke, but where was Bottom? Without him they were finished! He was in the hamper, as it turned out (don’t ask me how he got there), and the play was “preferred”, so the happy ending was on after all.
With only fourteen actors in the cast, Philostrate had been given the elbow, as had any sign of furniture in Theseus’ palace – the lords and ladies stood for the whole of this scene. Not that they were all there – Hermia was doubling with Snug, and had to sneak off before the party was properly underway to moonlight as a lion. I did spot her departure, but not her return.
It was Quince, a very nervous Quince, who brought on the list of possible entertainments and handed it to the Duke, too tongue-tied to read the list himself. Theseus read out the items, while Philostrate’s comments on Pyramus and Thisbe were delivered by Hippolyta; a tad cruel with Quince standing right beside her. That may have been hard to take, but he did at least get the chance to celebrate a little when Theseus chose to see their play regardless.
Quince disappeared off stage but soon returned to give the prologue, still as nervous as before. He threw away his piece of paper before he’d finished his speech; he seemed to remember it OK, but his delivery was no better than before. He brought on two candles – presumably to light the ‘stage’ – and the cast lined up for the description of the play, doing a few of the actions to illustrate Quince’s words. Bottom had a large yellow beard dangling below his chin, a white hard hat with two horns coming out of it and his sword was a plunger. Thisbe had a red housecoat over a frilly petticoat, a long Doctor Who scarf and a blond wig with bunches. She walked with small steps, on tiptoe and in bare feet. Wall’s hard hat had a duck’s nest on top of it, complete with duck, and the chink was between his fingers. The lion had gloves with claws on the fingers and a very large mop head wig for his mane. Moonshine was pretty typical, with lantern, sticks and a toy dog on wheels.
When it came to the actual play, Pyramus became very angry with Wall and attacked him; Wall swore at him in response. When his job was finished, Wall pocketed his ‘chink’ as if it were a gun. The lion announced himself as “Jug the snoiner” again, and couldn’t follow the fox/goose analogy which the onstage audience indulged in; mind you, it wasn’t clear to me either. Moonshine was well ticked off at the audience’s interruptions, and even kicked his dog, the brute!
Eventually they calmed down a bit and Moonshine waited in the middle of the stage for Thisbe to tiptoe her way into his “sunny beams”. Quince, cowering in the front corner of the stage, corrected Thisbe’s “Ninny’s tomb” and was treated to a malevolent glare. The lion scared her, she dropped her scarf, but in trying to get over the dog’s lead she tripped up, and the whole performance became a complete shambles. Thisbe fell over, the lion got caught up in the lead as well, Moonshine tried (in vain) to free the dog, and they were soon all on the floor, kicking and fighting.
Order of a sort was restored, and Pyramus was able to give us his death scene; not as long-winded as some we’ve seen but he did add a “splurge” or seven, demonstrating with his hands the way his blood was spurting out of the wound. His beard was stuck to his face and his trousers fell down as well, so the whole effect was wonderfully farcical. Moonshine was about to come back on after Hippolyta’s question – “How chance Moonshine is gone before Thisbe comes back and finds her lover?” – but Theseus waved him away with his “She will find him by starlight”.
Thisbe stood Pyramus up for a bit after she found him dead, and once he was on the ground again she straddled his face, nearly smothering him. We could see his foot twitching, which led to one of his boots coming off, and he managed to get enough air to complain that he couldn’t breathe. When she went for the sword, something else went wrong and she ended up holding her own wig. Helena kindly helped her out by handing her Pyramus’ sword, and Thisbe soon had her wig back on in roughly the right place. Her large breasts (balloons) were uncooperative at this point, with one bursting and the other ending up in a very strange position. She was most unhappy about the laughter her death generated, but collapsed on top of Pyramus anyway.
There was a general response of “No” to the offer of a prologue from the mechanicals, so they did a little dance instead with Theseus providing music on the cello. The chimes for midnight were rung by Titania, who was sitting on the ledge along with Oberon and Puck. Hermia had returned by this time, so the lovers went off in their appropriate pairs, leaving the stage to the fairies. The house blessing was done quite quickly, and the fairies did a doll-like dance, ending up in a line along the front of the stage. This was where they showered us with glitter and then retreated, apart from Puck who stepped forward again to give us the epilogue. We applauded enthusiastically, and even managed to collect some of the glitter as a memento.
This was a high-energy production, with some intriguing choices in the staging and a performance style which worked well with this fast pace. There were losses too; I didn’t have any sympathy for the characters and some of the speeches didn’t work so well, such as Titania’s climate change monologue, but on the whole it was a good fun evening with excellent performances. Propeller always creates a good ensemble, but I do want to mention Joseph Chance as Puck and Dan Wheeler as Helena; their performances were just brilliant. We may visit this one again later in the run to see how it’s come on.
© 2013 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me