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Thesus, played by Sam Redford and his bride to be Hippolytia, Queen of the Amazons, played by Laura Harding. Pictures: Topher McGrillis

A Midsummer Night’s Dream: a play for a nation

Royal Shakespeare Company

Stratford upon Avon

*****

WHAT a dream of a play director Erica Whyman has provided for the nation with an enchanting interpretation of one of Shakespeare’s most enduring and engaging comedies.

It really is a delight with its intertwined tales drifting between the realms of humans and fairies and a wonderfully, gloriously funny play within a play from the rudePuck mechanicals all overseen by the mischievous Robin Goodfellow, Puck.

And what a Puck. I could have watched Lucy Ellinson all night long. Her ever changing smiles, glances and expressions are a play on their own as she glides, flits and flows around stage and props. It is a performance full of mischief and humour and one which she seems to delight in just as much as the audience. Quite magical.

The delightful Lucy Ellinson as the mischief making Puck

Then we have our Athenian lovers, first the soon to be wed Duke, Thesus, played with suitable authority by Sam Redford and his bride to be Hippolytia, Queen of the Amazons, played by with regal aloofness by Laura Harding.

Followed by the warring quartet of Chris Nayak’s Demetrius, who is designated to marry Mercy Ojelade’s Hermia, except she is defying the wishes of her father, Egeus, (Peter Hamilton Dyer), and, instead, wants to marry Lysander, played by Jack Holden, while muddying the waters still further is Helena, played by Laura Riseborough who is desperate for the love of Demetrius, except he loves Hermia . . . and off we go again.

Egeus, who seems to be flying high in the Athenian air force, is demanding satisfaction from the law of Athens, to wit, marry who your father says or die. It was a simple time back then. The Duke adds an alternative to death with a life of chastity.

And while the humans think they have problems Chu Omambla as a white-suited, cool dude Oberon, King of the fairies, is having trouble with his Queen, the rather sexy Titania, played by Ayesha Dharker, who is refusing to give him a changling Indian boy who was given to her by one of her worshippers.

So he engages Puck to play a trick on her while she sleeps using a magic flower and, for good measure, having seen Helena’s love for Demetrius, orders Puck to throw in an extra bit of magic to help her cause. And it all rapidly heads south from there.

Nayak and Holden produce some gloriously funny moments with their bravado and posturing as they both woo Helena, and you feel Helena’s pain as she senses she is the butt of some cruel joke by the pair, while Hermia cannot believe it when she falls asleep with two suitors willing to die for her and wakes up with none.

And amid all this we have the rude mechanicals preparing their play, Pyramus and Thisbe, (Black Country version) for the Duke’s Wedding entertainment.

The production, a play for the nation remember, is a Bottomtheatrical pro-am with the RSC engaging no less than 14 amateur groups providing the mechanicals as the show tours taking the production around the country and on our visit the bumbling band of rustic thespians came from The Nonentities, from The Rose Theatre in Kidderminster.

And they held their own. Had you not read the programme notes or known of the wonderful scheme to include amateurs you would not have known they were anything but actors strutting their hour upon the stage.

Chris Clarke from The Nonentities who produces as splendidly comic Bottom. Picture: Lucy Barriball

Chris Clarke was a splendid and very funny Bottom, who, bedecked in an ass’s head, takes to being Titania’s lover in the lap of fairy luxury in his  . . . trot, while as a mechanical he not only decided he was the best for every role but also wanted to play them all. Modest appeared to be missing from Bottom’s lexicon.

That left Sue Downing as Quince trying desperately to direct her motley crew and keep some sort of order. Alex Powell as Flute is a reluctant and petulant Thisbe, who does not want to play a woman as he has a beard coming, while Andrew Bingham, as Snug, playing the lion, makes the cowardly effort in The Wizard of Oz look positively valiant as he quakes in fear at his own roar.

Patrick Bentley as Starveling, playing moonshine, brings an absent minded professor look to proceedings while Simon Hawkins as Snout finds playing the inanimate object of a wall is the most dangerous part of all as . . . should we say, some of his more precious bricks are loosened by Bottom’s Pyramus and Flute’s Thisbe trying to communicate through his somewhat vulnerable chink.

The result is a very funny play within a play. Too often this scene turns out to be little more than mild amusement, bumbling yokels muddling through a play, but this was a comic highlight, a Shakespearean sketch full of visual humour and mock ham acting which left the audience roaring with laughter. To appear on the stage at the RSC is living the dream for any actor and they did amateur theatre proud.

There are also groups of 10 children from three local schools, Alveston C of E Primary, Bridgetown Primary and St Gregory’s Catholic Primary, appearing on different nights in Stratford adding to the aim of the production to make Shakespeare and theatre accessible to everyone. Filling the stage with what appear to be WWII evacuees, complete with name labels.

It ties in with the rest as Whyman, has set the play somewhere around the 1940s with Tom Piper’s minimalist set - useful and simple for touring - little more than a bare brick wall at the rear, a set of steps and a rather shabby grand piano – which also serves as Titania’s bower – which is enough as Whyman fills the stage with her own brand of magic in what is a wonderful production. It makes Shakespeare an accessible and most enjoyable play for the nation. To 05-03-16*

Roger Clarke

01-03-16

A Midsummer Night’s Dream: a play for a nation returns to Stratford from 15-06-16 to 16-07-16 after a nationwide tour.

At the end of the tour 84 amateur actors from 14 amateur companies will have played the rude mechanicals with 58 groups of 10 children joining Titania’s fairy train - 664 amateurs sharing a stage with the professional cast of 19.

Tour dates

Northern Stage, Newcastle upon Tyne,16 - 26 March; Citizens Theatre, Glasgow,29 March - 2 April; Grand Theatre, Blackpool,5 - 9 April; Alhambra Theatre, Bradford,12 - 16 April; Marlowe Theatre, Canterbury,19 - 23 April; Theatre Royal, Norwich,26 - 30 April; Theatre Royal, Nottingham,3 - 7 May; Hall for Cornwall, Truro,10 - 14 May; Barbican, London,17 - 21 May; New Theatre, Cardiff,24 - 28 May; Grand Opera House, Belfast,31 May - 4 June. 

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