‘The nation’s favourite Shakespeare play is performed as never before; Deputy Artistic Director Erica Whyman directs 18 professional actors with local amateur groups around the UK as Shakespeare’s Mechanicals.’
This year, the Royal Shakespeare Company have been touring a production of ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ around the UK. Not only have they taken the show to 12 different venues, but have performed it in collaboration with 14 amateur groups. Although the tour has now finished, they are still performing at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford Upon Avon until mid-July. The amateurs play “the mechanicals” – a group of workers who are themselves a kind of amateur theatre group – throughout the play they are rehearsing their play, ‘Pyramus and Thisbe’, to perform at Theseus’ wedding to Hippolyta. One of these workers, Bottom (the weaver) is quite a central character, and I was impressed to see at this role was also filled by amateur actors – in the performance I saw, done with The Bear Pit, the role was played by David Mears.
The Bear Pit is one of two companies based in Stratford-Upon-Avon that are involved in this project – the other is a group called The Nonentities. The Bear Pit were very good and worked seamlessly with the professional cast, however it would be interesting to see what other groups brought to the production as well. The production itself certainly lived up to the RSC’s infamous high standards. Lucy Ellison’s Puck was particularly brilliant – she performed with all the mischief and sparkle expected from the character and completely stole the show. Ayesha Dharkar’s Titania was beautifully regal, while her Oberon, Chu Omambala was intense and domineering – both were incredibly captivating. The four human “lovers” all worked incredibly well together, both in more serious scenes and highly comedic moments. As I only stand at 5ft1 myself, the short jokes made at Hermia’s expense were all too familiar!
The one thing about this production that I wasn’t entirely convinced by was the setting. The cast were mostly dressed in 1940s, typically British style clothing, with Titania being the main exception in a bright red sari. The music and backdrops fit, but it seemed to me that there was no real interaction between the play itself and a 1940s/world war setting. It looked good, and was more engaging than traditional Elizabethan dress, for example, but the lack of engagement with the play made this setting fall a little flat for me. The recent production of Hamlet was set in an African dictatorship, and this worked well and was blended perfectly with the plot of the play. Shakespeare has remained so popular for so long because his work can be translated to so many different situations, (particularly ‘Dream’ as ‘a play for the nation’) but the 1940s setting for this production just seemed a bit stuck-on, like they had already prepared the play and chose the set and costuming after. It was aesthetically pleasing, don’t get me wrong, especially the forest, however it didn’t feel like the aesthetics engaged with the play as well as they could’ve.
The use of children from the local primary school as the fairies worked surprisingly well – they were focused and had clearly put a lot of work in, although their part was small. Some critics weren’t sold on the song the fairies sung to help Titania sleep, however I found it sweet and a good way to show the fairies’ relationship with their queen – Oberon has very little interaction with fairies other than Puck, and the lullaby scene just added to the contrast between the two. The use of local children also compliments the use of amateur groups, and in my opinion they seemed just as polished as if they had been professional child actors. Overall, the production was very well put together and showed a fantastic collaboration between the professionals and amateurs – and that’s what this was. If you hadn’t known amateurs were in the performance I don’t think you could’ve been able to tell. The Bear Pit did a fantastic job and helped create another fantastic performance at the RSC.
I am very lucky to live fairly close to Stratford and the RSC – however up until recently I’d never actually seen a Shakespeare play live on stage; ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ was the second Shakespeare play I’d seen, and the first of his comedies – the other play being the recent RSC production of Hamlet. I’m hoping to see the RSC’s productions of King Lear in August/September and The Tempest in November. If ‘Dream’ is anything to go by, I can’t wait.
Images found here
Watch the trailer here.
See you soon,