A Midsummer Night’s Dream – November 2013

Experience: 8/10

By William Shakespeare

Directed by Edward Hall

Company: Propeller

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.

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A Midsummer Night’s Dream – October 2013

Experience: 8/10

By William Shakespeare

Directed by Michael Grandage

Venue: Noel Coward Theatre

Date: Wednesday 23rd October 2013

There was an unusual experience for us today; Steve rated this performance much lower than I did. However, he did have a chesty cold which inevitably reduced his enjoyment, so I’ve stuck with my rating overall.

The opening set consisted of tall window panels with just a small wooden base to each. The windows formed two archways, one behind the other, and behind these was a solid wall of windows with what looked like a door or doors concealed within it. There was some misting on the window panes, suggestive of age and decay, and with a soft yellowish light glowing through the panes, the whole set had a bronzed antique effect. The Athenians costumes were 1950s in style, but the fairies were another matter.

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A Midsummer Night’s Dream (As You Like It ) – August 2012

2/10

By Dmitry Krymov, loosely based on some elements of Shakespeare’s play

Directed by Dmitry Krymov

Company: Chekov International Theatre Festival/Dmitry Krymov’s Laboratory/School of Dramatic Art Theatre

Venue: RST

Date: Wednesday 15th August 2012

For lovers of this director’s work, this was a joy, but it certainly won’t persuade me to sample the rest of his repertoire. The performers were all brilliant at what they do, and there were some fun moments during the hour and forty minutes it took to get through (plus a cute little dog running around on stage), but the rest just dragged, and I was surprisingly unmoved by the deaths of the two lovers at the end. For once, I didn’t even have the heart to pretend to applaud, apart from the ballet dancers. Fortunately the regular fans more than made up for my lack of enthusiasm, and gave them a standing ovation.

Despite the title, this was not A Midsummer Night’s Dream; the director found he could only relate to the mechanicals in this play, so all we got was their presentation of Pyramus and Thisbe. Nothing else – no Duke, no lovers, no fairies. Before the start, the stage had wooden flooring covered with a large plastic sheet. The backs of the chairs near the stage had cloth covers too, and Steve soon realised that water was likely to be involved.

We sat by the right hand walkway, only this time it had been removed and stairs put in (similar on the other side). Along the length of these stairs lay a huge tree trunk, with the base resting on one of the steps up to the stage. Several of the mechanicals were guarding it and chatting to members of the audience as well. Above the central aisle hung a huge chandelier, swathed in white cloth and hanging quite low. At the back of the thrust on both sides were two makeshift boxes, and I assumed these would be for the onstage audience. They had assorted chairs, and were marked off with planks of wood resting on piles of bricks or whatever else was around. The areas of the circle above them were also sectioned off, and I could see colourful throws spread on the backs of the seats. At the very back was a sheet, but it didn’t come into use till later, and apart from that I think the stage was bare.

With the house lights still up – they were regularly on for the audience participation sections – the action began. The mechanicals started talking loudly amongst themselves, and lifting up the tree trunk they carried it onto the stage. Others came along with branches, and because the items were so big, they filled the stage and even brushed the audience as the mechanicals swung them around trying to sort them out. There was also a small dog, a terrier, which ran down the tree trunk and around the stage, getting to know the audience.

The tree and its branches disappeared off the back, and then a fountain was brought on down the same aisle, with water pouring out of it intermittently on either side. We didn’t get splashed much in the end, and the performers were quick to get the buckets under the flow (and towels were handed out immediately afterwards). The fountain was also taken off at the back, and neither tree nor fountain was seen again, although the sheet at the back had some smudgy markings that may have been intended to represent leaves. The dog stayed behind, and positioned itself centre back, while a screen came down on which was projected a long-winded description of the mechanicals argument. Apparently they had been discussing Shakespearean verse styles, and there appeared to be lots of in-jokes about the director’s wife; the fans were laughing, but apart from some lines I didn’t find it particularly funny. The dog sat up a few times during this, and again the fans thought this was hilarious. I noticed the dog had something attached to its collar – possibly to give it instructions remotely?

I’m not sure of the exact order of events – always a problem with non-textual business – but fairly soon the mechanicals came on stage half-dressed and proceeded to put on their evening clothes. They were in a tight group in the centre of the stage, and when they were done they formed up in rows and waited. At one point a woman tried to push her way to the front, but couldn’t get through. Then the on-stage audience arrived. There were lots of them, including two young girls, and they took a long, long time to get on stage, look around, and then take their seats. There was some fun as a stroppy older woman character, who was carrying a bunch of flowers, used it to brush wood shavings off the plank at the front of their box; this was when I realised there were wood shavings on all their chairs, indicating the rough and ready nature of the mechanicals’ performance. The way that woman cleared the chairs was good fun, even if it went on far too long. Then there was the inevitable wrecking of the boxes themselves, with people falling into the stalls and planks of wood landing on the stage. It was all very predictable and took many minutes to sort out, and it was probably at this point that I first considered leaving before I wasted too much of my precious time.

After they were seated, the on-stage audience were all given champagne to drink (yawn), and then there were several minutes of ringing phones to sort out. Later in the performance, one chap took a call on his mobile and we saw the dialogue come up on the surtitles. He told someone he was in Stratford (funny) and was paying a fortune for international roaming! (even funnier) He had several goes at switching his phone off before the ‘action’ continued.

Back at the start, the on-stage audience were seated, refreshed, and phone-free, so they waited for the performance to begin, as did we. And we waited. And we waited. I found myself thinking that Communism had given the Russian people great patience – all that queuing for bread, perhaps. Then the performer front right whispered something to the chap next to him, and it was passed back, one to another. When the surtitles started up, we learned that the chap who plays the lion was being told not to pare his nails (he didn’t, he informed us).

One of the performers came to the front and turned to face the group on the stage. He delivered an approximation of Peter Quince’s wonderful prologue, conveying the sense of awkwardness and confusion beautifully. He wanted the audience on stage to know that their performance wasn’t ready yet, but as they hadn’t seen it before they wouldn’t know that. They weren’t intending to give the audience any enjoyment, though if they did enjoy it that was fine. They just wanted to give a good performance. They pushed some of these surtitles through so fast that I could only just catch the sense of the last one; something about enjoying the fact that we realised the performance wasn’t ready. Whatever the punch line, the rest of the speech was funny, and for once the time they took was worth it. I even started to enjoy myself. But it wasn’t to last.

After the speech and whispering (they may have happened the other way round) one of the actors fell flat on his face, passing out from all that waiting. The others picked him up, and he ran back as if to go off stage to deal with his bloody nose, but then he stopped and came back to the front to explain what they were doing. They had obtained a copy of a very ancient text from a friend who was working for the RSC, or possibly from the KGB vaults, and had learned that Pyramus and Thisbe were real people and that theirs was the first true love story. Forget Adam and Eve – who else could they fall in love with? – this was the real thing, and all other lovers’ stories sprang from them. The list was long, and there were several laughs along the way. But each love story has a THING, the THING that caused Eve to eat the apple, etc. The THING in Pyramus and Thisbe’s case was a LION. They had decided to strip the Pyramus and Thisbe story down to the essentials and were going to present that to us.

I think the group broke up after this bit, and then two large black bags were carried onto the stage and placed on either side. The one on the left turned out to be Pyramus’s puppet, while Thisbe’s was on the right. They spent a lot of time setting up Pyramus; the puppet was at least ten feet tall, with the performers just able to walk under his legs. He had two large hands, one of which could actually grasp things, and the face stuck to his head looked like an icon’s face, a young one at that, and quite good looking. They played with the idea that the puppet was difficult to control, having it fall over a couple of times by the boxes, and then brought it over to the front of the stage where it teetered on the brink for a few moments. As it was just by us, I spotted the puppet’s reaction to not falling on top of the audience – he wiped his hand across his brow and then flicked it to one side. I found it amusing, but I suspect the gloomy lighting hid it from the fans in the audience as there was no response from them. Mind you, there was plenty going on with all the mechanicals rushing around, the dog scampering here and there, and occasional interruptions from the on-stage audience, particularly the outspoken older lady who’d been cleaning the seats with her flowers. When they did interrupt, the performers stopped what they were doing and waited patiently for them to finish.

Once they had Pyramus up and walking, he went over to the circle on the left side and held out his hand to the people there. The woman who was with the children up there was frightened, and swatted at his hand with her bunch of flowers to make him go away. The older girl realised what was wanted, took the flowers and gave the bunch to the puppet, who grasped them in his hand. Then the stroppy one on the other side took a rose out of her bouquet and demanded that Pyramus pick that up as well. This was when the balancing acts came to the fore. The Shustov brothers, highly regarded acrobats in Russia (and I wouldn’t disagree with that assessment) did a couple of routines to hand Pyramus extra flowers to put in his bouquet. To give him the rose, they first had to get one of them on the other’s shoulders, and this took a few goes, as the upper one kept falling over the lower one and landing on the stage. Once they were balanced, someone handed the top guy the rose (flicked up from another acrobat’s foot?) and he held it out as Pyramus came over and took it in his right hand, then moved it over and slotted it into the bouquet he was holding in his left hand. It was impressive work for a puppet. To cap all this, the brothers then went into reverse, as it were, and handed Pyramus another colourful bunch of flowers with one balanced on the other’s head, and the flowers held in his outstretched foot. It was impressive, I’m sure, but as my view was blocked almost entirely for this bit I had to guess at what was going on from the audience’s reactions. They did take a break during this section – don’t remember if it was another audience interruption or not – and I could see the top brother walk his way down the wall and rest there, at right angles to the lower brother, while whatever else was going on was completed. Pyramus added these flowers to the bouquet with equal dexterity, and to much applause.

There was another balancing act as well, but neither of us can remember what was given to Pyramus by this means. This time it was Boris Opletaev (as far as I can tell from the pictures in the program) who stacked several cylinders, with short wide ones being placed rim down and longer narrow ones placed across them on their side and oriented in different directions. When he placed a board on top of these, we could see that the stack rolled every which way, and yet he stepped up onto it, steadying himself with a hand on a nearby shoulder, and stood there, rocking relatively gently, to do whatever this bit required. It was an impressive performance – they all were – and a momentary relief from the monotony.

With Pyramus good to go, we only needed Thisbe, so her bag was unpacked too. The woman who had been hanging around at the start turned out to be Thisbe’s voice; she and one of the men sang beautifully to convey the characters’ feelings, sometimes just ‘ah’ sounds, sometimes songs in German. Thisbe herself was as tall as Pyramus, and made out of odds and ends as he was. She had a white skirt, two breasts, and a doll’s head, large size, and her mouth worked when she was talking. We didn’t get any surtitles for the songs, but her “Nein” in response to Pyramus’s declaration of love was pretty straightforward. She said ‘no’ a few times, and Pyramus had to flaunt his shapely leg before she would sit down with him and chat.

Once seated towards the back of the stage, the wooing could proceed in earnest. First the food. Pyramus obviously likes his women well fed, so he gave her a peach, then a pair of cherries, then a pineapple, still with its spiky top. It was impressive enough the way he held out his hand, grasped the fruit which was put into it, then transferred it round to Thisbe’s mouth. She was a girl with a good appetite, too; her head had been changed during the move to the back of the stage, and now she had a head which flipped back at mouth level so she could swallow large fruits whole, which was very funny. She did stop Pyramus when it came to the pineapple though; instead, she took the fruit herself and put it in her own mouth, leaving a bit of the top sticking out, also funny.

For entertainment, the dog act came forward, and the lovely little chap (I’m talking about the dog) did some fun tricks, including a back flip. With the foreplay done, Pyramus needed some help to get ready for the next stage. Accompanied by many sound effects, his metal crotch panel was unscrewed and a large penis thrust through the gap. It was lying on the floor, and a pump had been brought on to get it upright, when the on-stage audience started to protest about the appropriateness of such things when there were children present. To be fair, it was mainly the old lady, but even so they had to interrupt the coitus, and a deflated Pyramus left the stage through the back curtain.

With Thisbe left alone, the lion made his appearance. Another black bag had been brought on and left near the front. Not as big as the others, it was still large enough to have a person inside it, so I wasn’t surprised when the lion leapt out. Don’t know who played him, but it was a lovely costume, with claws on the knees as well as the hands, a shaggy mane and a long tail. One chap held the tail and used it to drag the lion back when needed – I assume it would be too difficult to move backwards in that costume – and two other men attached bat wings to the lion’s back and held them open, flapping them to suggest a devil-lion. As they stood in front of me throughout this scene I had to rely on my knowledge of the story to guess what was happening. After each lunge of the lion towards Thisbe, I did see one chap come forward and place strips of white cloth and red ribbon around the centre of the stage, obviously representing the bloody cloth that Pyramus will find later. At some point, possibly before the lion left the stage, the stroppy old woman interrupted the action to tell a long-winded story about a lion that had destroyed a town, some of which was quite funny.

After several lunges at Thisbe, the lion left the stage. Thisbe was in a terrible state. She was so terrified that she peed in a basin for a very long time. Then she too left the stage, and they used a lovely piece of staging to create the moonshine. A rope of some reflective or glowing material was laid out in a wavy pattern on the stage further back from most of the bloody strips of cloth. Behind the sheet, a wobbly moon rose, and as it did so, the rope lit up, shining in the moonlight. It was a beautiful effect.

Pyramus returned to discover the bloody strips of cloth by this light, and he went to pieces at this point, literally. His arms came off and danced around towards the front of the stage, while his head came off and turned around towards the back. When it turned back again, his face had aged – a good trick – and as this happened twice he ended up with what looked like a bearded Christ face. He stabbed himself through the stomach and fell forward, dead or dying.

Thisbe returned accompanied by four swans carried by four of the performers. The swans had red beaks which looked suspiciously like dildos to me, and the rest of the swan was made of a sheet wrapped round and round for the neck and bundled together for the body. While the woman on stage had normally sung for Thisbe, I think it was the woman in the circle who now sang, and she had a lovely contralto voice, deep and rich. Thisbe saw Pyramus, and after a short lamentation she also fell on top of him, with the swans grouped round them, bobbing their heads. Pyramus raised his head briefly when Thisbe arrived, but it sank back down again quickly, and finally the show was over. Or was it? There was no way of telling with this production.

The on-stage audience were offered the option of an epilogue or a dance, and the old lady was very emphatic that they do the dance. Being Russian, this naturally meant ballet, and four dancers in tutus came to the front of the stage. As the music for the Dance of the Cygnets started up, they formed a line – with difficulty, as one of the four was preening herself in front of the audience too much – and did a set or two of the dance in step with each other. After that, things went from bad to worse, with heads going in different directions, bobbing up instead of down, and some cygnets forgetting which direction they were dancing in. It was a lovely interpretation of Shakespeare’s scene: with the Russian fondness for ballet this would instantly have illustrated the mechanicals’ ineptness, and it reminded me of the Nine Worthies scene at the end of Love’s Labour’s Lost.

The on-stage audience gradually left during this dance (lucky people), and when they’d finally gone the dancers stopped, very relieved and gasping for breath. Most of the cast were towards the back of the stage, with the dancers breathing heavily near the front, when the stroppy old lady came back to have a word with the man who was sweeping the stage. He’d been getting in the dancers’ way, wanting to sweep the bit of stage they were dancing on, but now he stopped and talked with the woman. She had recognised him – he’d played Shakespeare – and although the surtitles didn’t give us much of their conversation, I gathered that she was arranging to see him sometime soon. It was a little romance to end the evening with, after this tale of thwarted love. The music started up again, the dancers tried to carry on, but they were completely out of sync this time and the whole show ground to a halt.

The man with the bloody nose came to the front to tell us that although there was no need, he’d summed up the story for us. He handed a piece of paper to the main singer, who stood centre front and started scat singing – quite funny. The woman also came forward and tore off the bottom half of the paper, then joined in with a different set of scat noises. Others also joined in, some taking smaller and smaller bits of paper, until there was a cacophony of music. I don’t remember how they ended this bit, but eventually the cast disappeared off the back of the stage, though the bloody nose chap came back on to remove something which he’d used near the start to keep some raised flaps in place. As they fell back, he left the stage and the applause suggested we were finally at the end of the performance. The whole cast came back on to take their bows, the director presumably appearing as well although I couldn’t see him; some in the audience stood, there was lots of cheering, and I left after the first set of bows, glad to be getting out into the fresh air.

While this description of the staging may sound interesting, I’ve left out a lot of the boring bits, mainly because nothing happened during them. The Russian ability to pause is beyond belief, and the length of time they spent on some sections of the business left me cold. The physical business was usually telegraphed well in advance, and while I enjoyed some bits, and laughed quite a few times, there wasn’t enough of that for me. I like puppetry very much and I was becoming very fond of these two giant people, but the pauses for other business, including the woman’s lion story, drained any enthusiasm I’d developed for the performance, and I was very glad when it ended. I haven’t looked at my watch so often at the theatre for a very long time, and I hope I never feel the need to do so again. Brilliant as the performers clearly are, this just didn’t work for me, but thankfully most of tonight’s audience enjoyed it more than I did.

© 2012 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

A Midsummer Night’s Dream – December 2011

6/10

By William Shakespeare

Directed by Sean Holmes

Company: Filter

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

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

A Midsummer Night’s Dream – August 2011

Experience: 6/10

By William Shakespeare

Directed by Nancy Meckler

Venue: RST

Date: Thursday 25th August 2011

We knew the ‘theme’ for this production would be East End gangster – Mark Wootton is wonderfully indiscrete – and I was prepared to give it a chance. I’ve also liked everything I’ve seen of Nancy Meckler’s work, including the Complete Works Romeo and Juliet which seemed remarkably unpopular with so many people. But I’m sorry to say that I found this concept-driven version of Midsummer Night’s Dream too heavy rather than too dark. The comedy was doing its best to break free from the constraints of the staging, and when the concept took a back seat (a white leather armchair, in fact) the performance managed to  give us short bursts of laughter that were sadly not sustained throughout.

The set was massive. The back of the stage was all brick wall, with a metal staircase descending on the right hand side. There was a pillar back left, and various exits and doors. A large white leather sofa with matching armchair were placed mid stage, and there was a small table with three chairs towards the front and left. The overall effect was of an industrial building which was being used as gang headquarters by some fairly seedy criminal types. Three men in suits prowled around, playing cards and also playing with the two prostitutes who were on hand for whatever was needed – serving drinks, etc. There should have been three women in skimpies, but the third was playing Hermia tonight, as the original had suffered an injury during the vigorous fight sequence in the forest – more on that story later.

Hippolyta was also there, looking bored and unhappy as she sat elegantly on the sofa in her glamorous togs, including a fur coat. It looked as if her passport was being kept from her, which suggested an enforced stay in ‘Athens’. This state of ennui went on for some time before the play proper started with the arrival of ‘Duke’ Theseus, played by Jo Stone-Fewings. With slicked back hair and an incongruous (in terms of the Athenian setting) East End accent, his lines rather jarred, and although it was certainly clear that Hippolyta wasn’t happy with their impending nuptials, her lines didn’t quite fit either.

Not only were Egeus, Demetrius and Lysander already present from the start of this scene, Helena was also in the room, but up on the stairs at the back. I gather that people with seats at the back of the side stalls couldn’t see this bit, which is a shame, as at least it allowed us to be introduced to all of the young characters, and it gave us more of Lucy Briggs-Owen’s performance, easily the best of the night, and one of the best Helenas I’ve ever seen.

With the gangster setting, the prospect of Hermia being actually bumped off seemed more likely, which skewed the comedy for me. I can accept a criminal underworld boss being the law in his domain – The Syndicate in the Minerva showed us a similar situation in Italy – but why would this ‘Duke’ be unable to overturn a ‘law’ which was solely based on his own authority? An established country, ruled by a proper Duke, might have this problem, but the gangland scenario just didn’t support the text at this point, and many other times throughout the play.

Anyway, the lovers did a good enough job, and there were the usual laughs when Lysander suggests that Demetrius should marry Egeus. Nothing special about this scene, except for the way the dream theme is set up. Instead of leaving at the end of her bit, Hippolyta curls up in the armchair, which is pushed to the back of the stage, and goes to sleep, suggesting that the rest of the play is her dream. The set design supports this, with Titania’s bower being another white leather armchair all done up with flowers, the special flower with the drug being the same as the one Theseus offers Hippolyta and which she rejects, and a whole lot of chairs dangling at odd angles to represent this out-of-shape dream world.

The problem with this concept is knowing where the dream ends. Does it end with Hippolyta and Theseus ‘coming to’ as themselves after Titania’s ‘dreamed’ awakening? If so, how come everyone else has experienced this same dream too? Does the dream last to the end of the play? In which case, what happens when Hippolyta finally does wake up? I suspect the creative team would like us to forget all these points and just go with the flow, but then why have such a thought-provoking setting if you don’t want people to think about what’s going on? I like ambiguities and multiple possibilities, but this is a case of too many questions and not enough answers.

The mechanicals are next up, but this time they’ve already made their first entrance earlier. During the pre-show episode, the lights blew for some reason I don’t remember, possibly the sound system overloading? After a minute or two, a group of workmen turn up, flashing their torches everywhere, and they’re shown into the basement via a trapdoor towards the front of the stage which has smoke or steam coming out of it. That got a few laughs at the time, and now that everyone else (apart from the sleeping Hippolyta) has left, they re-emerge onto an empty stage, and Peter Quince decides it’s an ideal opportunity for their first planning meeting.

The majority of the mechanicals’ bits were fairly standard, and that helped to get the humour across. Francis Flute was dismayed to be playing a woman, but I didn’t see the others laughing at him much. They did laugh at Starveling playing Thisbe’s mother, though, probably because of his beard.  Bottom was as keen as ever to play all the parts himself, and Mark Wootton did a good job of getting his character across. It’s just as well he was only doing Pyramus, mind you – the scripts for the other actors were a few pages each, while Bottom’s part was several inches thick!

This helped the mechanicals to get off stage with plenty of laughter, and then Puck and a couple of fairies turn up to start the third aspect of this play. Puck is doubled with Philostrate in this production, along with the usual Titania/Hippolyta/Oberon/Theseus pairings. I like Arsher Ali as an actor, and there’s nothing inherently wrong with having a Puck who’s noticeably taller than his Oberon, but there was so little life or animation in this Puck that a great deal of the humour and fun just disappeared. I always hold the director rather than the actor responsible for these strange interpretations that don’t work for me, but I’m at a loss to know why this Puck was so underpowered. Not enough rehearsal time? Whatever the cause, it’s a serious weakness in this play to have the main mischief maker act like a wet blanket.

Other than that, the fairies were pretty good, all sexy underwear and freaky hairstyles – quite menacing in fact. Hippolyta is redressed by the fairies so she can appear on stage as Titania, and Pippa Dixon managed to carry off the change pretty well, and even if the long, frequently boring weather report speech did drag a little, she did better than most with this section of the play. One of her fairies acted out the vot’ress’s pregnancy, and the resulting ‘baby’ – a piece of cloth bundled up – allowed for a game of pig-in-the-middle as Oberon’s crew try to snatch it from Titania and her girls. This was all quite vigorous, and then we’re left with Oberon telling Puck to fetch the magic flower. There was humour in Puck’s unenthusiastic response, but not enough to make up for his overall lethargy.

While Oberon waits for Puck’s return, Demetrius and Helena arrive. Lucy Briggs-Owen and Alex Hassell have worked together a lot this season, and it shows in their well-honed performances. Helena, in her neat cream outfit, is every inch the Home Counties young lady, destined for a husband, two children, a twin-set and pearls, making it even funnier (or perhaps harder?) to see her crawling on her hands and knees to fetch the shoe that Demetrius has thrown for her. Well, she did ask to be used as his spaniel, and he really didn’t think she would do it, but that’s infatuation for you.

After Puck’s return and his and Oberon’s exit, Titania reappears and goes to sleep in her comfy armchair. Oberon doses her eyes, and in this production they use a small light which disappears as they cast it onto the sleeper’s eyes. Titania and her chair are then lifted up while the skew-whiff chairs are lowered down for Lysander and Hermia’s entrance. He’s all over her in this bit – it sets up a good contrast for his temporary rejection of her later on – but she repels him firmly and so they settle down to sleep draped over different chairs. [13/9/11 Not so, they slept on the ground] Puck anoints his eyes – took him a while to spot the Athenian youth lying practically in front of him – and then Demetrius leaves Helena in the same spot to lament her ugliness. The way Lucy Briggs-Owen did this speech was excellent, going much further in childish tears than anyone I’ve seen before. She really did look pretty ugly on the line ‘I am as ugly as a bear’, but in a nice way, and it got a strong laugh. Lysander waking up and falling for her was all much as usual, followed by Hermia’s awakening and departure, at which point the chairs are removed to allow space for the mechanicals’ first (and only!) rehearsal.

This scene didn’t really sparkle for me to begin with. A lot of the dialogue fell flat, while Thisbe’s dialogue was too unclear for the mistakes to be heard, cutting the humour out altogether. Things improved with the transformation. Bottom’s long, blond curly wig made a good pair of ass’s ears, while his nether regions were adorned with a large salami and his hands were covered with tin cans. These were items that the mechanicals had as part of their rehearsal picnic – well, an actor’s got to eat. His lines after the other have fled were also well delivered, most of them ending with a braying sound. Naturally, Titania was smitten at once, and her fairies were soon introducing themselves to her new love. One of the named fairies had already been dropped as there were only three ‘big’ fairies to play the parts, so with one of these seconded to play Hermia, we saw Cobweb, Moth and Mustardseed (I think Peaseblossom was the one they dropped) as little red lights, held by the two remaining big fairies. [13/9/11 Correction: it was Moth they dropped] This worked quite well, I thought – not as cluttered as some productions, and they didn’t dwell too long on the obscure humour either.

I think they took the interval here, and restarted with Oberon wondering what’s happened to Titania. Puck arrives immediately to give him the news, and this story was delivered better, with more life to it. Then Demetrius and Hermia arrive, and kick off the long section of the lovers’ quarrels and fights. Oberon and Puck spend most of this time on the back stairs, and again were invisible not only to the lovers but also to some of the audience. The lovers’ verbal sparring was matched by their vigorous physical wrestling as well – hence the original Hermia’s injury – and some of it was very funny, but for the most part it didn’t quite come together. I know the understudy has had a few performances already, and was doing a good job, but I didn’t feel she was fully up to the level of the others – hopefully more performances will bring her on even more.

This whole section has a lot going on, so I’ll just note the things I remember. Demetrius was lying on the couch when Oberon anointed his eyes. The chairs were brought down for Lysander and Demetrius’s attempted fight, and the lovers ended up asleep, draped over chairs at the front of the stage. When Puck removed the spell from Lysander, the chairs were gradually removed as well, so that the lovers tumbled gently into two groupings, nicely snuggled together.

After Titania has had another scene with Bottom, and Oberon has freed her from her infatuation, Bottom’s chair is pushed to the back of the stage, the chairs descend again, and with lots of music and a whirling dance, Oberon and Titania dress each other in their Athenian clothes and become Theseus and Hippolyta again. As the chairs disappear upwards, the couple ‘wake up’ in the middle of the stage, and since the hunting dialogue wouldn’t work here, we’re straight into the discovery of the two pairs of lovers. Their conversation and departure is followed by Bottoms’ awakening and exit and then the mechanicals’ regretting their situation – all pretty straightforward. In the final act, Philostrate uses a microphone to announce the possible entertainment options, and then Oberon and Hippolyta move to sit on the stairs at the front of the stage, while the other couples occupy the walkways on either side, lying down to let us all see what’s going on.

The Pyramus and Thisbe performance was good fun. Not all of the dialogue came across, but there was enough funny business to make it enjoyable anyway. Bottom and Flute were revealed snogging behind the curtain at one point, while Thisbe’s speech became somewhat moving as Flute appeared to suddenly realise the situation his character is in, faced with a dead lover. His delivery of the lines conveyed the emotion, despite their silliness, and although it wasn’t as full on as some productions, I was still moved. Moonshine’s dog was another home-made prop – couldn’t see what it was made of this time – Thisbe’s scarf went AWOL as usual, while Wall simply looked scruffier than usual and used his fingers to create the chinks. The song at the end was loud and modern, and there was no hint of recognition between Bottom and Hippolyta that I could see – a perfectly reasonable choice. The fairy blessing and Puck’s epilogue were pretty standard – nothing sticks on my memory – and then they took some brisk bows, to much applause, and headed off.

There was a post-show discussion tonight, which lots of people stayed for, and we had some good questions for the cast who turned up and Drew Mulligan, the assistant director. The chairs came in for some comment – not everyone got what they were for, but lots of people liked them – and there was a lot of praise for Imogen Doel, the understudy who has been playing Hermia for a short while now. I don’t remember the rest of the questions now, but it was a good session, ably chaired by Nicky Cox.

One idea came to me a few days later. Someone had pointed out the way that Dukes in Shakespeare’s plays have a habit of claiming they can’t change the law of wherever, and then doing that very thing by the end of the play. Theseus is the main culprit quoted in this context. It occurred to me that his line “Egeus, I will overbear your will” could mean that he was going to prevent Egeus from demanding that the law be applied to his daughter, rather than actually ignoring the law this one time. Or, in the vernacular of this concept, he was going to make Egeus an offer he couldn’t refuse.

© 2011 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

A Midsummer Night’s Dream – November 2008

10/10

By William Shakespeare

Directed by Greg Doran

Courtyard Theatre

Friday 7th November 2008

Just brief notes tonight. Again, Joe Dixon has calmed down a bit, and it’s a better performance as a result. I noticed the fairies more from this angle, and the way they were using the dolls. I considered the dolls to be the way the fairies appear to the humans. There was way too much smoke during Oberon’s first ‘appearance’ – we could hardly see him for the fog – so he didn’t really ‘appear’ until it cleared a bit, which was a waste of a good entrance. Everything else was as before, but better balanced and just as enjoyable.

© 2008 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me