A Midsummer Night’s Dream Review

Friday 8 July 2011

My theatre companion and I set out from central London with tickets and picnic, but most importantly plastic galore – to save us from the heavy rain predicted.  Wonderfully, after a short walk from the station and a whizz round the beautifully-up kept  Castle grounds looking for signs of a show – we found a patch of grass and the rain held off for the entire show.

The ‘showground’ is on a slope and the Pranksters had erected a marquee to serve as a backstage area, together with light and sound rigging – and the centre-piece, an old, old wireless radio from the 40s.  We had heard a rumour about the war-time theme and were very interested to see how this would work.

It did work – and very splendidly too.  In fact it fitted-in incredibly well and is without doubt the best re-setting idea I have seen (I’ve seen a few). The ending, with Lysander and Demetrius donning their RAF jackets and going off to an unknown adventure is highly poignant, and offers a modern metaphor on marriage and not yet knowing how it will work out.  It makes Helena and Hermia timeless brides – however feisty and independent during courtship, they have no control over their man’s desire to ‘fight’ for his country, and no weapon to make him come home.

Starveling the Onion Seller was another brilliant device – J P Judson looked every inch the ubiquitous French Johnny and caused hoots of recognising laughter.  He could just have projected a little more against the twilight birdsong, but was nonetheless a superb addition to the mechanicals.  Bottom was highly convincing and his flying-helmet with donkey ears very understated but exactly right for the tone of the show.  Lion was the meekest I’ve ever seen, played to good effect as a gentle giant by Mike Willoughby.

Puck is a difficult part – not part of anyone’s gang and needing to be both cunning but simple.  Jessica Nunn was lovely in her blue dungarees, and with subtle USA-flag headband – just a hint that as Puck was needed to bring all to rights, so we needed American assistance to help bring the war to a conclusion.

Lysander, Steve Griffin, and Demetrius, Jon Cotterill, were wonderfully choreographed in the ‘chase’ scenes, and must have been exhausted form running around the whole stage and backstage area again and again – and half of it uphill!   Their ladies, too put great energy into their fight to get their men, carrying their high-heel shoes in the latter stages just as modern girls do after clubbing and I’m sure 40’s girls did after waltzing in the village hall on Friday nights.

It’s always hard to get a whole Shakespeare show on without making it too long for modern audiences, and sometimes lines can be a little quick to catch the poetry and illusions.  ‘To cut or not is the question’, and director Jen Haynes did try to pack it all in so that the pace was excellent.  Possibly a little chop here and there would have been judicious, but it’s an enviable task, and anyway 10pm is a perfectly respectable finishing time.

Peaseblossom and her Cobwebs – another inspired turn, with tea-dresses and songs for every occasion in both the war and the woods.  All the sound and music, courtesy of Leo Lyon (what an apposite name!)  was excellent, another very hard task to get right in the open air.

There is one respect in which amateur shows often triumph over professional.  In order to cast as many in the show that want to be in it, doubling is not necessary.  In this instance we had a different Theseus and Hippolyta from Oberon and Titania –which I think adds dynamism and interest to the story, and allows the Wing Commander and his consort to be firmly in the war, but Oberon and his queen to be true spirits of the night.

I hope Pranksters have videoed the show – snippets could contribute to an RSC Open Stages ‘scrapbook’ – an idea that occurred to me whilst watching the famous ‘wall’ scene, as ever funny despite our telling ourselves not to laugh at the foolish.  I would have quite liked to have the court on stage for that rather than on the grass, creating a lovely tableau, but that’s a tiny point.

All in all the show was excellent and highly enjoyable – very well don’t the Pranksters and especially to director Jen Haynes.

Jo Matthews

14 July 2011