Writer: William Shakespeare
Director: Erica Whyman
Music Director: Tarek Merchant
Reviewer: Victoria Bawtree
Subtitled ‘A Play for the Nation’, this RSC touring production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream is both bold and inspiring. In celebration of the 400th anniversary of the death of William Shakespeare, Erica Whyman, Deputy Artistic Director of the RSC has teamed professional actors with amateur actors who play the ‘Rude Mechanicals’ and a team of local school children to play Titania’s fairies. Canterbury is one of 12 regions of the UK in this tour, represented by The Canterbury Players and King Ethelbert School, Birchington.
The play is set in the late 1940s in what seems to be a disused warehouse, which is transformed subtly through movement of doors and a single staircase. A grand piano is placed centre stage which, having been performed, later becomes Titania’s bed. Composer Sam Kenyon’s music carefully aids the transitions, particularly as Oberon and Titania’s lair is revealed as a jazz-inspired club and grand piano is replaced with an upright. A number of actor-musicians, including music director Tarek Merchant, integrate music with the action seamlessly.
A full synopsis is not needed here, but at the heart of Shakespeare’s play is love; its powerful effect on us and how it can sometimes make us act in unexpected ways. There are those who fall under the enchantments of Oberon’s magic flower potion and those who gain or lose love unexpectedly as a consequence. Shakespeare’s combination of the two produces emotional outbursts, sometimes funny, sometimes not, which are full of the intensity of natural human reaction.
The sprite Puck guides much of the action between mortals and fairies and Lucy Ellinson takes this role with a real sense of fun. She is capricious and playful and always at ease as she controls who falls in love with whom. The quartet of young lovers, Lysander (Jack Holden), Hermia (Mercy Ojelade), Demetrius (Chris Nayak) and Helena (Laura Riseborough) throw themselves into all the emotions of lost and misplaced love with energy and passion. Titania (Ayesha Dharker) and Oberon (Chu Omambala) hold themselves with dignity and a sense of commandment as they rule the fairy Kingdom.
The Mechanicals are a misfit group of tradesmen who decide to put on the play The Tragedy of Pyramus and Thisbe in honour of Theseus and Hippolyta’s marriage. The six members of The Canterbury Players who take these roles are totally at ease with the comedy of these scenes and the culmination of the ‘Play within a Play’ had the audience, including a large number of children, completely engaged. Lisa Nightingale who makes history as the first woman ever to play Bottom in an RSC production, has an impressive skill for comic timing. The gender reversal allows for a more Diva-esque Bottom which Nightingale plays up to beautifully with Bottom’s continuous but well-meaning demands to be centre of attention.
This mammoth project – which must have been a logistical nightmare – has come to fruition with real style, from professional and amateur alike. For those in The Canterbury Players, their hard work will be rewarded with an additional run at Stratford to coincide with Midsummer. It’s well-deserved and well worth seeing.
Runs until 23 April 2016 and continues to tour | Image:Topher McGrillis