Writer: William Shakespeare
Director: Matthew Dunster
It’s impossible, of course, to do something really inventive with Midsummer Night’s Dream that isn’t going to be compared with all that’s gone before. There’s the tie-dye one, and the Sellotape one, the Bauhaus one and the semi-naked one. Hard acts to follow, but you have to try.
You get the idea what this one’s going to be even before doors open – and this is where there has to be a great big SPOILER ALERT. To be perfectly honest it’s probably best to read this after you’ve seen Matthew Dunster’s inventive and entertaining production.
There’s a couple of tannoy announcements trying to ascertain the whereabouts of the cast, then costumed actors begin popping their heads round doors, antsy front of house staff move at pace through the bar. “Bear with us” announces the man on the tannoy “we can assure you there will be a show”.
By the time we take our seats in the delightfully intimate 360 degree ‘cockpit’ auditorium there’s four actors pacing the stage and shouting at the Stage Manager. Half the cast are ill, the story goes, and so, with much comedic palaver, the bar manager, a couple of front of house staff and an audience member are corralled into taking part.
By the time Theseus (David Nellist) finally gets to deliver Shakespeare’s opening lines you’re beginning to wonder just how much of the actual play you’re going to get, or whether it’s all going to be knockabout silliness. By the interval it’s clear that it’s a bit of both. Not that the knockabout silliness isn’t mightily entertaining. The production gives all the characters an uncharacteristic opportunity to show off their comedy skills as well as their more serious drama ones, rather than relying on the ‘mechanicals’ to deliver the light entertainment. And it works. While there’s lots of laughs throughout, the poetry keeps on shining through, mostly delivered in reassuringly northern accents.
The cast, brought together through an extensive open audition process, is a diverse mix of emerging and experienced talent, with several members making their professional debuts. Performances are equally strong throughout, though. Louise Haggerty’s Glaswegian Puck is brilliantly down to earth. Kate James’s Helena is delightfully feisty. James Fairhurst (Bottom, and founder and Director of Not Too Tame, the company behind this production) almost, but not quite, steals the comic scenes.
Lysander, played by deaf actor William Grint, and Hermia (Rebecca Hesketh Smith), conversing in sign language brings an extra level of intimacy to their youthful romance, making his drug/magic induced infatuation with Helena even more misplaced. There’s a very sweet scene with Helena and Hermia briefly remembering what great best-friends they are before trying to scratch each other’s eyes out.
The decision to use a voiceover by David Morrissey (and the fact that the publicity fails to make it clear he isn’t actually in the show) is the most misplaced element of the production. His dull vocal performance adds nothing and leaves Nadine Shah’s Titania awkwardly talking to god-like voice in the sky. Fair enough, Shakespeare doesn’t actually give Oberon much to do in the play, but he and Titania are equals, and this creates an odd imbalance.
Music plays a big and hugely successful part in the show. Nadine Shah’s Titania throws in a bit of Nick Cave, while Louise Haggerty’s Puck delivers a haunting version of Ray Davies’s I Go To Sleep. There’s some pop and rap and a bit of unnecessary dancing involving the audience, a bit excruciating if you’re not much of a joiner-in but at least it’s a chance to stand up and stretch a bit (those 17th century style wooden seats are quite hard).
It’s nothing short of amazing that a new theatre exists in a small northern town, and nobody’s under any illusion that this is an ideal time to try to fill theatre seats. So it’s a good thing that Shakespeare North has got off to such a good start. This fun production deserves to do well here, and at Newcastle’s Northern Stage where is travels later. Not only that, Shakespeare North offer a sliding scale of ‘pay what you decide’ prices that will hopefully encourage lots of people to give it a try. Go on – it’s well worth your time.
Runs until 22 October 2022