Review by Belinda Doyle
For many people A Midsummer Night’s Dream forms their introduction to Shakespeare. It is much studied in schools and a favourite (often open-air) production for both professional and amateur performers. In recent years producers have updated the action and setting. This production however directed by Steve Lewis took a traditional approach, but with enough interesting touches to arouse the audience’s curiosity and hold their attention. Director Steve said with regard to his production, quoting actor Richard Wilson ‘if you live forever what do you do all day, every day…sex, alcohol and drugs probably had a lot to do with it…’ These elements were effectively present throughout the production.
Steve was fortunate in being able to cast a wide age range of characters- old and new faces, which was great to see! The lovers were the right age for their parts and all four successfully conveyed passionate teenage love, frustration with the older generation and determination to take matters into their own hands. Each found a characterisation that suited their role: Alex Blackie was a youthful Lysander, brimming with energy and vigour and contrasted well with the more mature Demetrius of Alex Johnson whose transition from macho, arrogance to doe-eyed fool, lusting after Helena, was very effective. Jasmine Ella presented a beautiful, aloof and vulnerable Helena, a lovely performance slightly marred by her tendency to speak a little too quickly- some lines were lost to the audience. Emma Heaton gave a strong performance as the feisty Hermia so sure of the constancy of Lysander’s love, so perplexed when that love seemed to falter and so determined to fight tooth and nail for his return! By the end of the play all four had visibly grown up ready for marriage.
Emma Dow’s Titania was a warm and sensuous Fairy Queen. Whilst she spoke with authority in her confrontation with Oberon there was delicacy and musicality in her poetry. Her cascading curls and floaty costume gave her a mystical sensual appeal- lucky Bottom! Bad Luck Oberon! Stephen Bentley, (Oberon) knows how to perform Shakespeare! His beautiful voice and understanding of the text enriched a strong performance with subtle insights: his unsettling drunkenness at his first entrance suggesting a vulnerability not often seen in this character, his reaction when eavesdropping and spiteful plotting with Puck. Will Allen gave a spectacularly energetic performance as Puck. His physical and dynamic vocal performance was full of mischief and cunning keeping the audience spell-bound! His conspiratorial relationship with his master, Oberon heightened his characterisation. He really was Shakespeare’s ‘shrewd and knavish sprite’.
The fairy troupe were all exquisite to look at. Each brought an individual trait to the fairy circle: Cobweb’s (Amanda Smith) maternal comforting of the younger fairies and her self-assured encounter with Puck, Peaseblossom’s (Johanna Turner) little sneezes and twirling frolics, Moth’s (Olivia Denton) flowing movements and confident stage presence and Mustardseed’s (Sarah Jamieson) gorgeous Pre-Raphaelite sultriness. Their dancing, eavesdropping and peeping round pillars was charming and captivating.
Now to the members of the Court: Graham Brierley portrayed Theseus as wise and caring, his glory days as heroic warrior well and truly in the past, ready to embrace domesticity with his Amazon Queen, Hippolyta played with grace and dignity by Vicky Prince. The roles of Egeus (Steve Lewis) and Philostrate (Louis Whittle) although small were a positive contribution.
The team of mechanicals worked well as a group led by Keith Doyle as Peter Quince. His fatherly attitude towards them reined in Bottom’s exuberance yet encouraged the others. His perplexity at their incompetence and disappointment at the reception of their play was beautifully captured. Peter Smith brought enthusiasm and vigour to the larger than life character of Bottom. His sense of self-importance came across both as a man and as a ‘donkey’. His confused looking behind him when he ‘brayed’ was a delightful touch. Flute (Alfie Batten), Snout (Richard Fordyce), Snug (Dominic Prince) and Starveling (Ron Millinger) all acted successfully as out of their depth at the prospect of performing a play. Unfortunately for this reviewer, despite all their good intentions the Mechanicals’ play, which should be the humorous high point of the production, was a little lacking in comedy.
However their inept ‘amateur’ acting had it’s funny moments: Thisbe’s breaking voice and the stop-start dying moments as she swapped the side of her fatal wound, Wall’s facial reactions. (It would have been a nice touch if he had walked square on towards the wings before realising he had to walk sideways), Moonshine’s devastation when his light fails and his general awkwardness, Pyramus coming out of character to ‘explain’ the play to the Duke and for young Snug, his ferocious ravaging of Thisbe’s scarf.
The set consisting of static Grecian pillars draped with ivy was impressive and served well throughout the play; it gave the subtle effect of a tree filled forest. It was a stroke of genius to use the workshop and backstage for the entrance of the grand couple. It would have been nice to see more use of it. The forestage could have been put to better use. The fairy bower was unnecessary, the appearance was not in keeping with the rest of the set nor was it functionally used. As mentioned before, the Mechanicals’ play was lacking in laughs. This was possibly due to the constraints of the set. The static pillars limited the amount of performance space available for dramatic action between Flute, Lion and Pyramus.
The lighting by Alistair Joel and Rachel Millinger was well executed especially the dramatic transition from the sunny court to the depths of the fairy forest. There were subtle changes to give the appearance of nighttime when the mechanicals gathered. This reflected the uneasiness and dark theme in Shakespeare’s writing. When the Mechanicals’ performance was illuminated it felt as if the audience were part of the court and then there was a dramatic transition for Oberon’s and Titania’s final entrance to bless the house.
The musical fanfare from Monteverdi’s Orfeo was well chosen and contemporary to the time of the play. The trumpeting upon Quince’s entrance made for a great comedic effect. The spooky spoken soundscape for the fairy spell added ethereal atmosphere. More use of the music would have been beneficial to smooth over scene changes, perhaps a theme for the mechanicals entrance to give them more identity?
The costumes, in the very capable hands of Chantal, Pat and Carole were beautiful and added greatly to the look of the production. The fairy kingdom was exquisitely dressed and great attention had been paid to Puck’s costume. Maybe Oberon would have benefitted from an additional sweeping garment to suggest his ethereal status. The lovers also were appropriately dressed and their change of costume for their weddings was well thought out. There was I felt a slight problem with Hippolyta’s costuming in that to the audience it resembled Helena’s so closely. Hippolyta is an Amazon Queen and perhaps this could have been reflected in what she wore. The Mechanicals’ costumes were rather clean for workmen but otherwise appropriate. The character costumes in their play seemed too high-class and this detracted from the comedic effect of their play. How would ‘hempen homespuns’ have found such a perfect wig for Snug’s Lion and expensive fur waist coat. Also Thisbe’s rather beautiful wig and modern-day scarf seemed wrong for this rough and ready troupe. On the other hand Pyramus seemed to have no costume at all- surely some armour could have been rustled up from Snout’s workshop? The construction for the infamous donkey headdress was disappointing. Although volume was not compromised, the appearance was. Being so central to the plot, a flocked latex horse head would have given the scene more punch!
I was lucky to be able to see 2 performances of this show and was interested to see the development in characterisation as the run progressed and as the actors became more confident in their roles. This production has continued a strong current season of well-cast, and well-designed shows for Shepperton Players.
“If this review has offended,
Think but this, and all is mended:
That you have but laboured here
Whilst these visions did appear.”
(Apologies to Shakespeare)
Many thanks to Belinda Doyle for her first review for Shepperton Players.