By WIlliam Shakespeare
Directed by Mike Tweddle
Venue: Tobacco Factory
Date: Wednesday 27th February 2019
One advantage of having to wait outside the theatre for our ride back to the hotel was that it gave us a chance to speak to a couple of the actors – Danaan McAleer and Evlyne Oyedokun – to congratulate them and thank them for such an imaginative and inspiring production. I was especially pleased because the audience numbers tonight were on the low side. This innovative, cross-gender casting version of the play deserves full houses every night, and we’re happy to have already booked for another helping of the fun.
Mind you, it was a very dark start to the play, darker than we’ve seen before, and not just in terms of the lighting. With the lights out, apart from some orange lamps in the entrance area, a woman ran on stage and was cornered by three men in trench coats. They grabbed her, she fought back, and they threw her to the ground. Theseus (Luca Thompson) then appeared in the entrance, and called to her – “Hippolyta” – so it was clear that their relationship was on a #MeToo footing from the start. Apart from feeling uncomfortable at having such blatant and brutal misogyny on show, I did wonder how they were going to lift the performance into the “joyous, wild, raucous night out” promised by the trailer.
It took a little while, despite the initial welcome to the disco. Before the start, with the lights up, we enjoyed seeing the red, white and blue set and listening to the sound of various hits from the 80s and 90s, including Beautiful South’s Don’t Marry Her and D:Ream, Things Can Only Get Better. A bright red carpet filled the space between the pillars, which were swathed in white cloth. Swags of white and blue cloth hung round the top of the central area, with red ribbons at intervals, and there were balloons by the far left pillar. A blue sofa sat at the far end of the carpet, with a blue armchair to the right, near us. The rest of the floor was a scumbled grey colour.
The costumes were modern. Theseus wore a suit, while Hippolyta wore combat clothes for the opening sequence, followed by formal dresses. Egeus and Demetrius also wore suits, while Hermia was dressed in a tweed skirt with short jacket. Lysanda was in baggy trousers and a top, with a yellow overcoat. Her black lipstick didn’t suit her, but that’s just a personal opinion. Helenus wore a light blue turtle-neck, brown cord trousers and a green jacket. The fairies wore ragtag clothes with a touch of glamour – a fur shrug for Titania, for example. The mechanicals were in assorted styles: Bottom in T-shirt and jeans; Quince in middle-aged knitted top, with glasses and a worried expression; Flute in cycling gear with bike; Snug, black boiler suit; Snout, in corduroy, always ran on later than everyone else – it’s all those quick changes – and immediately removed his shoes and socks; Starveling had glasses and was dressed like a spinsterish librarian, with a cardigan over a longer-length dress.
After Theseus’ conquest of Hippolyta (Charleen Qwaye), the lights came up and we were treated to an announcement, telling us to welcome Theseus and his bride-to-be. He came on happily, soaking up the applause (some of it from the audience at first, but mainly pre-recorded) but she took her time, seemed awkward and reluctant, and read her lines off a card. No Philostrate in this production, so the text was trimmed, but it was clear that Theseus was in party mood and oblivious to Hippolyta’s point of view: by now few in the audience were likely to applaud him. No matter, they had canned laughter for his jokes, which was just as well, and champagne served by a female waiter.
When Egeus (Danaan McAleer) dragged his daughter on stage and made her kneel before the Duke, things took a turn for the worse. In backing Egeus’ position regarding his ‘ownership’ of Hermia (Paksie Vernon), Theseus made no mention of a nunnery – death or Demetrius (Dan Wheeler) were the only options: this was much darker than usual. As the bickering between the lovers developed nicely, I found myself wondering how these two same-sex relationships would work in the forest, but reminded myself to wait and see – presumably it would all make sense as they acted it out.
Theseus snapped his fingers for Hippolyta to follow him when he left – not much from her during this scene, but then that was the point – and we finally had a chance to meet Helenus (Joseph Tweedale), Demetrius’ previous love. The exchange between Hermia and Lysanda (Evlyne Oyedokun) that preceded this was just a bit too rushed for my liking, but they got the main points across OK. Helenus wasn’t as droopy as the female Helenas tend to be, but then that beard would probably make excessive crying very unpleasant. The dialogue was slightly altered for the gender changes, but otherwise went as normal, and although it was unusual to hear Helena’s lines spoken by a man, it was a promising start, and a salutary reminder not to take gender roles for granted.
After the lovers had all left the stage, the waitress from earlier stepped forward, snapped her fingers, and the mechanicals appeared as if by magic. She herself turned out to be Bottom (Heather Williams), while Quince (Danaan McAleer), Snug (Evlyne Oyedokun), Flute (Dan Wheeler) and Starveling (Paksie Vernon) all arrived at the same time. Snout (Joseph Tweedale) was late, as mentioned above: completely understandable given how little time he had to change.
Parts were handed out, and Bottom was keen to play them all, as usual. We weren’t so impressed with this Bottom – not as strong as other performances we’ve seen, including other actresses – but the detail in the other characterisations was impressive, especially so early in the run. Flute was nicely unhappy about playing the woman’s part, but everyone else was content, so once they’d got Bottom’s feathers unruffled, they left to prepare for their first rehearsal.
Another snap of fingers, and the lights went out. Or almost out. There was a soft orange glow coming from our left as a fairy came on from the far entrance, singing. While she sang, she walked around the stage slowly while the cast/crew moved the sofa, removed the carpet, put the sofa back and took down the swags of cloth. They also took the blue covers off the sofa and chair, revealing very worn and scruffy furniture underneath. When the lights, which had been flickering during this section, came back up the stage was ready to become forest, apart from the white cloth draped round the far left pillar – that was discretely removed by the fairies during the Titania/Oberon confrontation.
The first fairy turned out to be Puck (Kim Heron): well, she was the only one who hadn’t been involved in the previous scene, and since she was only playing the one role, she didn’t have to do any quick changes. Which was just as well, since her wig alone would have taken some time to put back on straight. To be fair, the large mound of hair, which may have had a bird’s nest in it – hard to tell – would probably have looked fine any way round. Her song, using lines from the play, ended with the classic “lord, what fools these mortals be”, which is about as good an introduction to Puck’s character as you’re likely to get.
Another fairy came on for the opening dialogue of Act 2, and I felt that Puck was taking just a fraction longer with her lines which meant they came across much better. No cuts as far as I could spot. Titania (Charleen Qwaye) carried the infant boy in her arms when she came on, but despite her best efforts, she couldn’t make much of the dreaded weather report speech. Even so, they kept things moving along briskly, and Oberon (Luca Thompson) was soon sending Puck off to fetch the magic flower: not the fastest mover, this Puck.
In the meantime, Demetrius and Helenus came on, and instead of simply telling us that he was invisible, Oberon hid behind the sofa, peering round it to get a better view as the argument between Demetrius and Helenus developed. One line change I noticed: “Your wrongs do set a scandal on my name” instead of “my sex”. Again, they were back to being a bit rushed: hopefully that will ease a bit over time.
When Puck came back with the flower – a pretty red one, with several flowers on one stem – both she and Oberon sniffed the perfume deeply, and both were affected by its magical properties. The lights went down a bit, they swooned and came within a millimetre of falling in love with each other, but just managed to pull back from the brink of a kiss. This set up the later eye-anointings nicely, as we now knew what to expect.
Some more rewording was necessary to allow Puck to be confused about whose eyes to drop the potion on – I forget the details now – and then the beeping started up. With Oberon and Puck off stage, it was time for Titania to get to bed. This turned out to be a bathtub, filled with lots of foliage as well as Titania, and it was carried on stage by a trolley. Reflecting health and safety requirements, one fairy called out “fairy queen entering the grove”, while the others manoeuvred the trolley through the entrance and positioned it by the front right pillar. This took some time, so there were more announcements – “fairy queen now on stage” – and finally the trolleys had to be lowered down and removed. This was all enjoyable stuff, and suggested they were making a virtue out of a necessity: since they had to get the bathtub on stage anyway, build it into the performance.
With Titania ready to go to sleep, the fairies round her did some strange movements, then struck a ‘delicate’ pose to sing the song, which I think used the words in the text. Titania kept waking up after each verse, so they had to do another one, but finally they got her down for the night and left, with one fairy standing guard by the bath. Oberon put this guard to sleep with a cloth over his mouth – I would suggest chloroform was used, but that’s so unfairy-like – and laid the sleeping fairy across Titania. He then stood on the side of the bath, and while he uttered his spell, the lights were lowered again and he shook as if he was possessed. He removed the sleeping fairy as he left.
Lysanda and Hermia were the next to arrive. Hermia grabbed the sofa for her ‘bed’ but was kind enough to throw one of the seat cushions on the ground for Lysanda to sleep on. That didn’t appeal to Lysanda, however, who tried to share the sofa with her love, but no luck: some words were changed to make more sense of their ‘argument’. When Puck came on, she again sang some of her lines – she has a lovely voice, so it was a real pleasure – before spotting the Athenian whose attitude needed changing. Puck didn’t shake like Oberon when she did the deed, but we still got the lowered lights and possibly some music.
Having done her task, Puck left, and Demetrius came on almost immediately followed by Helenus. When Lysanda woke, she was instantly in love, and proved to be very lecherous as well. She nearly smothered Hermia with a cushion, but fortunately her desire to be with Helenus made her leave before completing the act. Hermia was able to fight off the unattended cushion when she woke up, and also left the stage promptly.
And so to the rehearsal. Snout was late, as usual, Bottom played Pyramus in a woolly red beard, and the chair was moved to the other side of the stage and used by Peter Quince as director. The exit/entrance was to our left. The changes to the play were discussed and agreed, Puck arrived and then Pyramus spoke his opening lines and headed off stage. Flute was absolutely rubbish, rattling through his lines with no pauses, in the manner complained about by Quince. I did wonder if we would see any subtlety emerge later on, as has happened before, but I had my doubts.
Given our position, we didn’t see the transformed Bottom immediately, but as she came forward quite quickly, we weren’t kept in suspense for long. She wore a helmet which had ears with ivy trailing over them, and had hoof gloves over her hands, but was otherwise unchanged. The rest of the cast was terrified, however, and did a lot of slow-motion running away, only coming back to collect a couple of items which they’d forgotten. Puck did some more singing of her lines as well, but Bottom sang completely solo when the rest had gone. Titania woke up, and immediately fell in love, which her fairies found completely perplexing. From their grimaces they weren’t at all impressed with her new lover, although they did as they were told, bringing on the trolley again to remove the bathtub, and even attempting some laughter at Bottom’s ‘witticisms’.
With the bath removed, Puck and Oberon came and sat on the sofa. Oberon was very happy to hear of the results of his and Puck’s meddling, but things went a bit sour when Demetrius and Hermia came on – oops. I don’t remember how they changed the lines, but by this time we were so engaged that they could have spoken the original text and we’d have happily converted it in our minds. Again, the fairies hid behind the sofa, but there was more moving around, partly to keep out of the way of the humans, but also because Puck wanted to see what was going on, and was clearly enjoying herself.
When Hermia left, Demetrius lay back on the sofa, and Oberon put the love juice in his eyes. Helenus and Lysanda entered, Demetrius woke up and immediately fell for Helenus (again). In the ensuing scene, he and Lysanda spilt their time between squaring up to each other (my money’s on Lysanda) and trying to gain Helenus’ favour, while Hermia (late to the party) and Helenus struggled to come to terms with the change in their respective fortunes. Puck, meanwhile, had snuck onto the deserted sofa, and was settled in for the evening’s entertainment, occasionally nibbling on something she took from an inner pocket of her jacket. She even shared whatever it was with Oberon once he joined her on the sofa.
This was excellent stuff. The constant sniping, the escalation when Hermia took exception to being called ‘small’ – “you puppet, you” – the fighting, Lysanda’s inhaler: it became a wonderful whirlwind of emotional misunderstandings and humour. I’m still smiling at it. To put things back to the way Oberon wanted it, Puck stood on the chair, which was now in the middle of the stage, and spoke and sang her lines to bring all the lovers back into the space without harm. The dialogue was severely edited, removing most of the ‘fighting’, so it didn’t take long, and finally all the lovers were back on stage, each sitting at the foot of a pillar, asleep. Puck, still singing, nearly anointed Demetrius’ eyes, but realised her mistake and did Lysanda’s eyes instead. Some of her lines were cut, and she finished with “and all shall be well.” Lights. Interval.
During the break, I noticed there were bits of broken glass round the top of the central area, which had been revealed when the cloth swags came down. The stage was fully cleared in the break, with the sofa and chair being removed, but it didn’t stay empty for long. They restarted with another announcement – “fairy queen and mortal entering” – which was accompanied by the beeping noises – I think the cast were making them themselves – and the bathtub on the trolley. Bottom was lying back on the foliage while Titania had her face in Bottom’s crotch, and judging by the noises Bottom was making, not to mention the leg-trembling at the end, it was clear what was going on. The fairies were just as unhappy as before, making faces at having to scratch Bottom’s ears. Cobweb (Dan Wheeler) took out a notepad to jot down Bottom’s food order, and looked relieved to be able to escape the party for a while. Things didn’t get any better for the fairies when Bottom sang her song – they were expected to do backing vocals, and Bottom’s singing was on a par with her acting (the character, that is, not the actress).
The singing petered out, and after Titania snuggled down with her lover, Oberon came along and removed the spell he’d placed on her – don’t remember if he did the same shaking thing this time. Titania was not at all happy about this state of affairs when she woke up, clearly disturbed that she’d been tricked into taking Bottom to her bed, and rightly so. She stormed off, Oberon following, leaving Puck to sing the lovers back into their positions by the pillars. She then took Bottom’s helmet off, and ‘switched off’ the lights as she left.
The darkness was necessary, because the next thing we saw was the light of a torch. A man – didn’t realise straightaway that it was Egeus – came on, checking out the space, and when his torch caught Hermia, he stiffened, very angry. He took out a gun, and after pointing it at Hermia, he moved on to find Lysanda. He was pointing the gun at her – we’d sussed who he was by now – when a noise made him stop, and he ran off, calling for Theseus.
When Hippolyta and Theseus entered, the lights came up. The lovers awoke, and, ignoring the Bottom in the bathtub, moved to their ideal pairings. After Demetrius’ explanation and declaration of renewed love for Helenus, Hippolyta whispered in Theseus’ ear, which led to his decision to “overbear [Egeus’] will”. This only increased Egeus’ anger: I think he left in a temper at this point. The lovers’ reunions were lovely, and after they left, Bottom woke up. This section went well, with the hand gestures for “methought I had” suggesting the additional appendage on which Titania had been lavishing so much attention.
After Bottom’s departure, the mechanicals removed the bathtub from the stage. They also made it look like we weren’t supposed to notice this bit, with one of the men holding his jacket open to screen us from the sight of the bath being moved. It fitted very well with the general air of amateurishness which the mechanicals had so carefully built up, and helped us to enjoy this little lull in proceedings. The red carpet was also restored to the centre of the stage by Egeus, who let us know that he was STILL ANGRY by kicking at the corners which just wouldn’t bloody well lie flat!!!
Another announcement told us to welcome the newlyweds, Theseus and Hippolyta: by now, no one was willing to applaud that misogynistic git, and Theseus looked uncomfortable at our lack of response. He indicated some people in the audience when referring to the lunatic and the poet: he himself was the lover (smug bastard).
With no Philostrate, Egeus was the one who gave the list of plays to Theseus, and explained the description of “tedious and brief”. Theseus passed the list to Lysanda, who read out the first description, and she then passed the list to Helenus, who passed it to Hermia, and finally Demetrius read out the last entry – very egalitarian. Given the doubling, the lovers took their places off stage, while Theseus sat in the empty seats to our right and Hippolyta sat opposite, so some of the seats had clearly been left vacant on purpose. In the circumstances, they had to make the comments about the production themselves, and there were cuts.
Quince came on first to do the prologue. He was very nervous, and tried to check his script for one line but remembered it anyway. It wasn’t as clear in this performance just how he was getting things wrong, but his nervousness and lack of professional training were very obvious.
The mechanicals brought the bathtub on, this time cleaned up and with bunting flags along its length. They were making the noises for a triumphant fanfare as they wheeled it in. Bottom also carried on a plastic crate with props and costumes, placing it to the side of the bath. All of them were dressed in black, including Snug who was still wearing her black boiler suit.
Quince came forward again, wearing a mask, and explained the action of the play. The other actors stood in the bathtub, apart from Snug and Starveling, who were perched on the rim at either end. These actors demonstrated who was whom by holding out their arms to present the relevant actor, who turned round as if on a spindle. They also mimed some of the action, although Snug’s choice for Thisbe stabbing herself was to form a gun shape with her hand and mime blowing her own brains out. Hm. Snug also fell off the bath once or twice, but that fitted in perfectly, so it may have been planned. If not, keep it in.
Wall was first up, as usual. His costume was two sheets sewn together down the sides, with slits top and bottom. Orange bricks were spaced out across both sides, and it actually looked better than in most productions. The problems came when he had to put his hand out – the necessary slit was missing. He managed to put one hand out through the neck opening for the preliminary bit, and then, while other stuff was going on, lifted the whole costume up, took it off, and was trying to put it on the other way round when the scene began. The costume was bunched up round his top half, so Pyramus, in a nifty purple suit and with black beard and ‘tache, and Thisbe, in a very short dress with the price tag hanging out the back, had to resort to the usual nether regions for their kiss. Thisbe was unhappy about this for a number of reasons, not least that, each time she bent down, her skirt was too short to cover her modesty, and she had to keep pulling it down and holding it. For the kiss she knelt down, to avoid that problem. Thisbe’s delivery was slightly better than for the first rehearsal, but not much, while Bottom was taking full advantage of having a stage on which to spread herself out. Wall did finally get his costume on properly, and even got a small round of applause, but it was too late for Pyramus and Thisbe.
Moonshine and the lion were next up. The lion had a headdress and gloves with paw prints. She was doing a good job overall, but her gloves fell off when she moved her hands on certain lines. Moonshine came in for some stick, and Quince, now crouching behind the bathtub with the others, had to restrain Flute from thumping Theseus after his derogatory comments. Moonshine was in the same dress, but had attached a head torch when she came on, and carried some kind of twiggery, while her dog was one of those small push toys on a stick. Her involvement in the rest of the scene was lovely, following the characters around the stage to give them helpful light.
When the lion attacked Thisbe, a helmet was dropped to represent Thisbe’s mantle, but it got taken off by mistake. Someone, possibly Snug, threw it back on, after Pyramus had spotted…nothing! Pyramus’ sword swished its way in slow motion through the air to his hand, carried by Quince and with the others making the swishing noises. He stabbed himself through the space under his arm three times, and then collapsed back, supported by the others for some of his ‘final’ lines. He then took out some red ribbon with rough edges and walked round the stage, throwing the ribbon out as he did, finally returning to the bathtub end of the stage where he sank to the ground and eventually died. Not the longest death throes I’ve ever seen, and very entertaining.
Thisbe rattled through her lines again, leaving a dramatic pause in the line “his eyes were green as…leeks”. No sign of latent acting talent in this version. She took the sword and did some more realistic stabs, with some very deep, guttural grunts, before collapsing on top of Pyramus in a non-smutty way. When they came back to life and Bottom offered to do an epilogue, Theseus was very quick to turn her down, and the actors dashed off stage to turn into fairies while Theseus and Hippolyta went off to bed.
With the lights down, Puck came on and climbed the far left pillar. She sang her opening lines of the next scene, and towards the end, spoke a few lines as the other fairies gathered. More singing, and then Hippolyta wandered on in her blue dress, carrying something. The fairies paused. She moved to the far side of the stage, and then Theseus came on in his dressing gown, calling her name. She turned, and we realised it was a gun she was holding. She pointed it at Theseus, the lights went down, and that was that. A fitting end to take away the sour taste of the opening scenes.
But there was still the epilogue to go before we could thank them properly. Puck came back to give us the final lines, and then we let rip with as loud applause as this audience could muster – we’d clearly enjoyed ourselves very much. Even so, they only took one set of bows, which was another reason why I was so pleased to be able to give more feedback and thanks to the actors afterwards. The production was very inventive, and looked like it was as much fun to play as to watch. I wasn’t so taken with this interpretation of Bottom, but everything else was splendid, and a refreshing take on this all too familiar play. Roll on our next visit.
© 2019 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me