June 26, 2008, by Peter Kirwan

A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Footsbarn) @ Tocil Field, University of Warwick

Footsbarn Theatre are a theatre troupe in the most traditional sense, touring in caravans and performing in their own ‘Big Top’-style tent. Formed in Cornwall in the 1970s, though now based in France, the company is truly international, representing a wide range of performance styles, languages and visual symbols. Their current carnivalesque production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream has been touring the world on and off for many years, with actors coming and going, and this year marks a long-awaited return to England.

The tent itself crammed a hugely enthusiastic audience into rows of tiered wooden benches arranged on three sides around a thrust area. A few lucky children sat in the centre of this area, while actors periodically paraded around them. The main stage area was a raised rocky platform, from which a small bridge led to a bandstand. A tree stood centrally at the back of the stage area, all made to look deliberately cartoon-like. This intimate space was used to great effect throughout a performance that relied heavily on the company’s immediate relationship with the audience, particularly with the many children present.

From the start, masked figures moved about, waving at the audience and collecting toadstools and similar. These fairies, with distorted smiling masks, giggled and gurgled unintelligibly, combining images from European folklore with the aesthetics of the commedia dell’arte. Always benign, the masks gave an excellent sense of ‘the other’ which, combined with the actors’ innovative ways of moving, some making themselves only two feet tall while others skipped about, gave the woodland scenes a tangible magic. Masks were used among the rest of the characters also – Egeus had a grotesque old-man’s face, Theseus that of a bull (presumably the Minotaur), Puck a dark red devilish face with a lion’s mane and the male lovers those of chickens, combined with feathery costumes. An air of wildness, of untamed activity, was created by the actors adopting the physical mannerisms of these animals, for example in Demetrius and Lysander pecking and squawking at each other as they argued.

The cast of seven doubled to great effect, the changes only becoming apparent very late on when pauses in the action were required for the actors to change. Joey Cunningham played Oberon, Theseus and Flute, Vincent Gracieux played Demetrius and Quince, Paddy Hayter combined Lysander and Bottom while Mas Soegeng juggled Puck, Snug and Egeus. The only characters to be sacrificed were Snout (whose rule was subsumed into Snug’s) and Starveling, for whom the moon was silently held up by another actor. The actors spoke in their own accents, which ranged from Cunningham and Hayter’s British tones to Akemi Yamauchi’s often-unintelligible Japanese accent and Soegeng’s deep Indonesian barks. Even when the accent overwhelmed the language, though, the action was clear and accessible, in much the way that Tim Supple’s Indian Dream was. The effect was to create a Dream that felt truly global, an experience tied together by language but incorporating the voices and practices of artists from around the world.

The performances were inventive and extremely funny, often using just simple devices to draw huge laughs. My personal highlight was Muriel Piquart’s Helena. Resisting the temptation to go into hysterics and horror as the men fell in love with her, Piquart instead simply stood in bemusement and looked at the audience with a pleading surprise, or sat at the edge of the stage looking into space while they waxed lyrical. Her confusion was both amusing and affecting, the woman genuinely thrown by what she was being confronted with. Her meekness contrasted nicely with Caroline Piette’s brusquer and livelier Hermia. The two male lovers, meanwhile, were all comic exaggeration and nasty asides, particularly from an extremely harrassed Demetrius who was worn out by the constant attention from Helena. The two even apologised to the nearby audience members as they drew their swords on each other

Oberon and Titania were impressively realised, the one a bald and creepy man, tall and dressed in black, who lurked at the top of the tree or crept in the background of scenes. Titania, meanwhile, was a Japanese acrobat who flitted about the stage and, later, was seen dancing with ribbons. Interestingly, neither wore masks, giving them two of the most human appearances of the play. Oberon was in control throughout the play, watching events unfold with a leer and cackling as he watched Titania and Bottom playing in Titania’s bed. Puck, meanwhile, was the flunky. Face completely hidden inside his mask, he bounced as he moved and was incapable of standing still. He played an instrument similar to the spoons in both his hands, using these instruments to indicate the rhythms of his words and thoughts, building to a frenzied climax as he prepared to undertake a task before running off again. More an agent than an instigator, his presence was nevertheless an active and energetic one that propelled the stage activity, and it was Puck who covered costume changes with dances in the centre of the stage.

The play was cut down to two hours with no interval, but somehow in this they managed to extend the Mechanicals’ scenes, performing the casting and rehearsal scenes leisurely and adding in plenty of off-text clowning, including a memorable piece of slapstick involving a prop sword being inserted in Quince’s backside. Paddy Hayter, who also directed the production, gave a magnificent performance as Bottom: chatting casually to the audience, storming off twice during rehearsals (the second time, after being denied any props, calling over his shoulder "I’m having a hissy fit!") and speaking through protruding teeth. Whole scenes in miniature were created by the four clowns, one involving a mimed scene at a door as Quince, Flute and Snug spoke loudly about Bottom, trying to persuade him to come back inside by complimenting him. However, it was the four’s camararderie rather than the set-pieces that most entertained, their easy back-and-forth and groan-inducing puns (as Snug got onto the group’s prop box to be given his part, Bottom encouraged him: "Opportunity Box, Snug!").

Bottom’s donkey head was enormous, almost the size of the actor again, with a mouth that the actor was able to manipulate to make it sound like his words were coming directly from the head. The enormous scale kept the children entertained but also kept up the carnivalesque atmosphere, turning him into a character straight out of the Mexican "Day of the Dead", and he was paraded around the audience by the fairies who couldn’t help their laughter as they looked at him. The parading was also an important part of the final scene as the nobles entered to watch Pyramus and Thisbe. The company brought in six enormous poles with masked mannequins of the six lovers mounted atop them, the poles decorated lavishly in the colours that the characters had been wearing. An abstract representation of the couples, these were paraded around the audience as confetti rained down from above to represent the wedding, before being mounted on stage to "watch" the play. The size of them, with their flowing robes and colours, meant they also served as a backdrop for the inner play, creating a stage in miniature on which the Mechanicals could perform.

Pyramus and Thisbe itself was comic, but in a very different way – an almost avuncular Quince narrated throughout in mock-tragic tones while the female actors appeared as deer and a fake stream of blue material was thrown across the stage. Combined with subdued lighting and flames lit by the actors at either side, the playlet was visually striking and atmospheric. However, low comedy was restored by Flute wearing two enormous balloons which he popped upon stabbing himself, and Bottom’s Pyramus predictably milked the death for all it was worth. As the playlet drew to its close, though, the Mechanicals gradually slowed down and were joined by the Fairies, themselves transforming back into their spirit characters, and the seven moved about the stage in a slow dance, Oberon and Titania blessing the house in a beautiful dance again reminiscent of Supple’s production but with a very different quality.

This production was beautiful, an entirely unpretentious and thoroughly accessible Dream that continually innovated while still respecting the traditions on which they were drawing. The fantastic performances, juggling farce with more sophisticated comedy, were greeted with repeated encores from the audience until the cast finally announced that they were heading to the bar. A promise that Footsbarn would return soon met with another ovation, and one only hopes that they are as good as their word.

This review originally appeared at Shakespeare Revue.

Posted in Theatre review