In this quattro-centenary year, there have been plenty of celebrations of Shakespeare with the much-vaunted aim of bringing the Bard’s plays to a wider public. There have been mixed results. Those companies that have been less than successful in their efforts at accessibility should go to see the current RSC production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream – it teaches everyone just how it’s done.
Having said that, it’s a project on a scale that isn’t for every theatre company. This MND has a sub-title – A Play for the Nation. And they’re not kidding. Over 18 months an RSC team planned one of the most unusual theatre tours ever. A core of RSC actors would share the stage with 14 amateur theatre companies (84 amateur actors) who would play the rude mechanicals and 58 groups of 10 schoolchildren as Titania’s fairy train, all from the locations where the play was showing at the time. So that’s 685 non-professionals. Not a project for the faint-hearted then.
Director Erica Whyman, admitting it’s on an almost unimaginable scale says: “It has been incredibly rewarding, watching brave actors discover what they are really capable of, witnessing exceptional generosity from the professional cast, hearing children and adults alike fall in love with Shakespeare and, in the process, reminding us all why we make theatre. If it works, it will make visible a truly national passion for theatre.” Well, it certainly works.
The stage is relatively bare – this is a set that has to get round the country, after all – but that set is extremely mobile. There is a grand piano that plays many roles, including Titania’s (a silky Ayesha Dharker) bower, later shared by the ass-headed Bottom. There is a flight of steps that is used as a hiding place in the forest, a vantage point for a wonderfully sinuous white-suited Oberon (Chu Omambala) and as a playground for a show-stealing Puck (Lucy Ellinson). Dressed in an over-size top hat and a black suit several sizes too small, this is a Puck that somehow combines Max Miller with Tinkerbell, who transforms from a gloriously naughty child, limbs outstretched and wild eyed, to a hunched, almost solemn servant of the fairy king, and back to a spirit of mercurial mischief – all in the wink of an eye. Indeed, she winks conspiratorially with the audience and at one stage clambers over them to get on to the stage. In this Dream, Puck is the embodiment of the play’s magic and chaos and manic energy – and it would be worth seeing for this performance alone.
But there’s far more to it than that. The play is updated to a 1940-ish era and the four young lovers are all tea dresses and Oxford bags, Fair Isle jumpers and knapsacks. They are all charmingly gauche, hilarious in their love tangles and rivalry and there’s some wonderful physical humour and a fine display of suitors on ever more bended knees (Chris Nayak as Demetrius and Jack Holden as Lysander). As Helena, Laura Riseborough has a touch of Miranda about her and some remarkable rapid-fire delivery in her increasing hysteria.
At the end of the play, though, these confused, bewitched young lovers are transformed into sophisticated, self-possessed aristocrats as they gather to watch a play put on for their pleasure. But then this is a play that is all about transformation, the greatest of all, of course, being that of the star of the play within the play. Bottom is played by John Chapman of the Tower Theatre Company and makes a fine vainglorious buffoon who wants to play every part in the play himself. He is wonderfully unsurprised to find himself the beloved idol of a fairy queen and is still bursting with swagger and self-importance when he becomes the star of the rude mechanicals’ show, Pyramus and Thisbe. He has competition, though. Maria Waters as Quince directs this disorderly crew with a firm motherly hand and Adam Moulder as Flute makes a fine Thisbe. Snug (Peta Barker) was a comically timorous Lion and Al Freeman as Snout played the Wall with a particularly brilliant running joke that brought the rude into the mechanicals. No spoiler here – you’ll just have to go and see it for yourselves.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Barbican Theatre London until 21st May 2016, venues around the UK until 4th June 2016 and the Royal Shakespeare Theatre Stratford-Upon-Avon until 16th July 2016. Running time approximately 2 hours 25 minutes including one interval. For more information and tickets visit the website.