May 7, 2016, by Peter Kirwan
A Midsummer Night’s Dream: A Play for the Nation (RSC/Lovelace Theatre) @ Theatre Royal, Nottingham
The RSC’s much-heralded return to regional touring was already a phenomenon before it opened. Erica Whyman’s audacious experiment is touring a full RSC production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream to cities across the UK, with a different amateur theatre company joining them at each venue to play the Mechanicals and a fairy train for Titania made up of local primary school children. When spending a bit of time in rehearsals with the Nottingham Mechanicals, I was stunned by the logistics – two years of auditioning, video rehearsals, advance visits from practitioners, site visits and company collaborations. The result is a simply enormous production, boasting 685 collaborators across the tour. It’s quite something to think about what this must be like for the professionals – every week when they get to the end of the play and settle down to watch ‘Pyramus and Thisbe’, they are watching a completely different group. And the amateur actors, of course, are sharing the stage as equal partners with the RSC.
The project is an exciting model for what will hopefully be an increasing investment in the regions by the RSC. The production itself was a solid Dream, hitting a fairly safe set of beats, which is a sensible decision for a production that needs to allow structurally for an unusual level of unpredictability and risk. Pleasingly, given the tour’s use of the country’s network of grand Theatre Royals and the foregrounding of theatre making, the production itself was set in a run-down 1940s theatre. Costume baskets, ladders, tatty red curtains and floorboards demarcated a space of play and celebration for the groups meeting in it.
The action was orchestrated by Lucy Ellinson’s Puck, a variation on Cabaret’s Emcee, twirling around the stage with top hat and a gleeful smile as she tapped people on their shoulders, pushed them into the fray and led them astray. Her energetic performance established a presentational, pageant-like quality to the play – characters were brought on and displayed or introduced (especially the painfully cute chorus of singing kiddies). Thematically, this of course matches the framing of the Mechanicals themselves for ‘Pyramus and Thisbe’, but it also characterised the adventures of the forest as a series of pageants, orchestrated by Puck for the pleasure of Oberon.
The central plot, that of the lovers, was surprisingly uninventive, and deadened by some of the professional actors apparently struggling with the space – it was almost impossible to hear Ayesha Dharker’s Titania from the upper circle, for instance, and the quick repartee of the lovers felt flattened and monotonous. What the production did achieve, in opposition to several recent Dreams, was confrontation of rather than complicity in the play’s misogynistic and racist language. Rather than stripping the women to near nakedness and laughing at the racial jokes (see the Washington DC production I saw in September), here Chu Omambala’s Oberon leapt to his feet in rage when Jack Holden’s Lysander referred to Hermia (Mercy Ojelade) as a tawny Tartar; and when Lysander called Hermia a dwarf, the actor of short stature playing Mustardseed (Ben Goffe) ran out and gave him an almighty smack on the back of the leg, to Puck’s applause. Moments such as these showed a pleasing commitment to calling out rather than tolerating problematic language in Shakespeare.
The production did, however, entirely sidestep the problems of sexual abuse, manipulation and power dynamics in the fairy plot; Titania’s reaction to seeing Bottom after the spell was lifted couldn’t have been more downplayed, and a shrug saw her happily embracing Oberon again. The production worked hard to avoid any conflict or discomfort, instead prioritising the beauty of Omambala – who first emerged to the sounds of swing music, descending a staircase in style – and Dharker, whose stunning red dress was mirrored in the petals, streamers and lights that bathed her crowd of followers. The only opposition was in the musical styles of the two; Titania led a nursery rhyme chorus of children for her lullaby, and when she tried to return to this tune during the reconciliation, Oberon immediately turned up his jazz, drowning her out and co-opting her into his own style of dance. The musical sequence that followed was spectacular, but the production didn’t seem interested in exploring the rather arbitrary ease with which Oberon took control of Titania following his drugging of her.
The more original decisions actually came from Lovelace, who more than held their own alongside the professional actors. Becky Morris was a larger than life Bottom, who instantly accepted her central role in Titania’s affections by physically managing the fairies’ space – the fairy attendants were grouped around her, and she moved between them, noting their names and rolling with the weirdness of the situation. This production (aimed deliberately at a family audience) played down the sexual references throughout the play, but the elegant Titania and the down-to-earth Bottom made a fascinating pair, Titania almost childishly delighted by her new toy.
The rehearsal scenes were managed fascinatingly by Linda Mayes as a female Quince, her hair tied in a tight headscarf, who gathered her players and exhorted them to better with a mixture of kindly encouragement and beleaguered disappointment (especially in the repeated correction of the pronunciation of ‘Ninus’). The rehearsals themselves were dominated by the back-and-forth between Quince and Bottom, with James McBride as Snug hilariously devastated as Bottom and Quince collectively wrote a speech for him to give as Lion that he would have no hope at all of remembering.
‘Pyramus and Thisbe’ made the divisions between the two companies visually pronounced – the three sets of lovers withdrew to either side of the stage, and the central space was demarcated in such a way that one could imagine a different company each week taking their turn to play the Mechanicals. The pageant-like quality of the presentation was also pronounced, as the Mechanicals stayed offstage when not on, allowing each to take their turn at the centre. A standout moment here was Jen White’s Snout absolutely loving her moment in the sun as Wall, and deciding halfway through her introduction that it would be much better to have the chink between her legs than her fingers. The seriously unimpressed reactions of Bottom and Daniel Knight’s Flute were rendered even more hysterical by the complete guilelessness of White’s beaming face as she encouraged them to get down and speak into her crotch (‘I kiss the wall’s hole’ said Flute, wiping his face).
But the beauty of the project perhaps came out most surprisingly in the audience reaction to Tom Morley’s Starveling. As he was repeatedly interrupted by the nobles during his attempt to introduce his lantern and his wheeled toy dog, the audience started giving audible sympathy, awwing and encouraging him on. Then, he asserted himself with ‘all I have to say’, stamping his feet and drawing whoops from the theatre. It was a lovely moment of us vs them, a reminder that the RSC are the guests in this theatre, and that an audience can be firmly on the Mechanicals’ side. The class politics were exaggerated here in the rah-rah insults of Lysander and Demetrius (Jamie Cameron understudying impeccably at this performance), while the well-spoken and more kindly Theseus and Hippolyta demanded some respect. When Flute came to give his final death scene (a beautiful mix of sincere and comic), he found that Pyramus had thrown the sword away in his comic throes. Theseus got up and handed the sword to Flute with the bow due to a lady, allowing Flute to finish killing herself in style, to rapturous applause from the won-over nobles.
The final dance integrated all three groups, interspersed on the stage and functioning as one large company. This is a production drawing in new audiences across the country, and if it was largely safe and light, it did so because this was also the riskiest and most complex production of this play for some years. I’m not sure it is a ‘play for the nation’, but it is a play for its local audiences – both the excellent amateur performers who take part, and the audiences who get to see a cast that sound like them.