Watermill - A Midsummer Night's Dream
5th February to 22nd March 2003, and on tour
This was the Newbury Weekly News review.
Watermill's magical Hall of Dreams
Once the violence of the 'Rage', with its blood and exhausting physicality subsided, where else could Edward Hall and his 12-strong male Propeller cast go but to explore their feminine sides? So they went fairy with Shakespeare's heart-warming tale of love and the madness which befalls those in its thrall, 'A Midsummer Night's Dream'.
In almost three hours of spellbinding theatre, staged in the round, they turned the tables on conventional interpretations of The Dream, interweaving the three-stranded plot, which is the stuff of classic farce, in a black and white theme echoing Victorian-attic-meets-Venetian-carnivale and with more sets of cotton singlets than Newbury has seen since the demise of Beynon's underwear department.
Mind, you had to be sharp to keep up. In a nutshell: a band of mechanicals, tradesmen, meet in the woods to prepare their somewhat gauche entertainment for the Duke of Athens' wedding to the Queen of the Amazons. Lysander and Demetrius are in love with Hermia, who loves Lysander but whose sister Helena's sights are set on Demetrius. Wouldn't you know, her dad secures the Duke's backing for her to marry the wrong man and she's given until the Duke's wedding day to comply or die.
So the lovers also take to the woods where Oberon, the invisible jealous king of the fairies is busy creating mischief, after falling out with his queen Titania, by ordering love-juice to be squeezed on her sleeping eyes to make her fall for the first thing she sees on waking, which turns out to be the weaver Bottom, turned into a goofy ass by wild spirit Puck - sublime in net tutu, stripy tights and ample bloomers. As it happens, caught with his trousers down, Bottom has much to interest Titania... and provokes some flirtatious moments with the fairies Pease Blossom, Cobweb, Moth and Mustard Seed.
Meanwhile, in the hope of gaining his love, Helena tells Demetrius of the lovers' flight, and they set off in hot pursuit, but thanks to Puck's muddled enchantments, Lysander and Demetrius turn their desire to an incredulous Helena and a chaos of emotions ensues.
After much to-ing and fro-ing, the love matches are eventually restored, three-way nuptials take place, and the base mechanicals can cash in with their hilarious tableaux for the upper classes.
The female parts required neither drag queens, effeminacy nor luvvies to camp it up, just the white-powdered faces and rouged cheeks of Columbine with lace-up stays and Victorian and Edwardian skirts as the merest hints of gender.
Despite black lace and cockerel feathers, Titania was butch enough to land a serious left hook on Audley Harrison and well up to Oberon's Yul Brynner in 'The King and I' stance.
With few frills, the lads cut to the job through a healthy respect for the delivery of Shakespeare's rich text.
Faithful to the language, dipping in and out of granny's attic and with freeze-frame action, there were times when this production became a pure work of art. Ensemble work doesn't come finer.
Ed Hall's 'Dream' was simply brilliant.
This was a rare five-star review from The Times.
Boys as girls coming out to play is never a drag
Here is the comedy, the string of predicaments, the sweetness of resolution but above all, and pervading all responses, wonder that such a familiar play can be so imaginatively recreated as to belong both to Shakespeare's age and our own.
The stage is small and square and at the centre of the square four tin flaps can be lifted up to become the walls of a shining Wendy house; and on the first appearance of this object Simon Scardifield's Puck delicately sticks his whiteface head out through the top to peer expressionlessly around.
Having clambered forth he is seen to be wearing red striped Grimaldi stockings and a tutu, fitting emblems of ambiguity for a mischievous sprite. This actor later takes on one of the mechanicals, playing a winningly sullen Moonshine. In fact all 12 players have several speaking roles or strip down to their white long Johns and then join the mob writhing across the stage as fairy attendants.
Hall's touring Propeller company is all male and over the years has established a reputation for intimate, accessible Shakespeare with such productions as Henry V, Twelfth Night and Rose Rage, a two-play version of Henry VI.
For this Dream the beefiest of the cast plays Hippolyta and a masterful Titania. No attempt is made to deal with chest hair, which thus contributes the intriguing element of a quality drag show. In a comedy involving changes, here is just another.
What is striking, in this all but uncut version, is how interesting the verse becomes when intelligently spoken, because it is fully understood. Even the rapturous exchanges between the various lovers four young ones, two older, two immortals hold our attention because the actors feel what they are saying. A thwarted father becomes far more than a plot device when his fury distils him, as in Chris Myles's performance, into a sort of raging mouth on legs.
Hall brings danger into the comedy. When Tony Bell's absurdly earnest Bottom is given his ass's teeth (plus ears, coconut hooves and dangling appendage) he becomes a goofy George Formby. But always underlying the courtesy with which Titania's fairies serve him is the chilling possibility of menace.
Where Shakespeare's boy actors were made to look entirely feminine, here the Helena and Hermia (played by Robert Hands and Jonathan McGuinness) remain evidently male even as they express, with precise exaggeration, girlish complaint and desperation. It is a perilous course for the production to tread, but it works supremely well and, like the rest of this staging, provides much comedy to treasure.
This is The Guardian's review.
This Dream seems as much touched by the goblins as the fairies, and there is something slightly twisted in the magic that crosses the conjuror's box of tricks with the invention of a child's dressing-up game. While the fairy world is in rich colour (Puck wears stripy red tights and a tutu), the humans are in black and white.
There is never any doubt that what we are seeing here is a performance. The chairs suspended around the stage clearly suggest that, offering an added dimension to the playing space and the impression of a potential audience. The air is filled with eerie music, all pip and squeak and fantastically effective.
I have seldom been so moved by the reconciliation of the lovers, human and fairy. The comedy is also deftly played and, although I suffered my usual sense-of-humour failure during the Pyramus and Thisbe sequence, I did enjoy Simon Scardifield's marvellous hissy fit as a Starveling reluctant to play Moonshine. He is also a most distinctive Puck. Every performance is fantastic. The power of this evening is cumulative, made up of tiny things: Helena's surprised "oh" when Lysander declares his love for her, Bottom's toothy delight in being the fairy queen's lover, the erotic charge between Oberon and Titania. It really is magic.
This is the Telegraph's review.
How to get your child hooked on Shakespeare
This was a landmark occasion for the Spencer family, the first time my son Edward, aged nine, has seen a Shakespeare play.
The Dream has always struck me as being the ideal introduction to the bard, and I was originally going to take him to an RSC staging a year or so ago, only to find it was a humourless expressionist nightmare of monstrous directorial vanity that would have put children off Shakespeare for life.
Edward Hall's Shakespeare productions, however, have always been accessible without being crass, innovative without being gimmicky, and there is no more enchanting theatre in Britain than the Watermill.
And all I can say now is thank you to Hall and his outstanding all-male ensemble known as Propeller. Edward had a cold when we set off, and by the time the play started he was shivery with a burning hot brow. When we got back home not long before midnight, he had a temperature of 103.
But he was absorbed throughout the show, insisted that he had followed the plot, enjoyed the verse, was mightily tickled by Tony Bell's outstanding Bottom, and pronounced the whole exercise brilliant before crashing out as soon as he got back into the car. A production that lets a child enjoy his first Shakespeare despite a high temperature strikes me as being about as rock-solid a recommendation as you can get.
There's a cast of only 12, with much doubling and tripling of roles. Almost everyone plays the fairies, dressed in white long johns and vests, like overgrown new-borns in baby-grows. When they move on to play other roles, they put on items of Victorian clobber - dinner jackets, fox fur stoles, leather aprons and long skirts - over their underwear. This all lends the show an attractive, home-made quality.
I was concerned Ed might find it off-putting watching men play the female characters, but he took the Elizabethan convention in his stride, and insisted it made the play funnier. And what a wonderful thing the theatrical imagination is. Watching a burly man in a bottle-green satin frock fall in love with another chap sporting donkey's ears, big false teeth and a foot-long woollen willy somehow seems the most natural thing in the world during this enchanting production.
Hall and co make use of every inch of the Watermill's limited space, in a production which finds characters disappearing through trapdoors and jumping from precarious balcony walkways made of old chairs. The actors also provide their own score, featuring folk songs, mouth organs and percussion, and almost every performance seems freshly minted.
Jonathan McGuinness and Robert Hands are a comic joy as Hermia and Helena, the one short, meek and just a little smug, the other, tall, gangling yet touchingly dignified in her romantic despair. Bell is the perfect Bottom, capturing the character's warm, eccentric humanity as well as his bumptiousness.
Dugald Bruce-Lockhart and Richard Clothier make the great row between Oberon and Titania unusually dramatic. And Simon Scardifield doubles brilliantly as a charismatic Puck in stripy stockings and ballet tutu, and as a hilariously disgruntled Moonshine during the mechanicals' play, which proves as touching as it is funny.
This is a production that captures the Dream's beauty and its humour, its everyday reality and its beguiling strangeness. It appeals equally to adults and children, and the good news for those who can't make it to Newbury is that it will be touring nationally from April to June.
This is from The Sunday Times.
The boys are back in gowns
If all the worlds a stage, then every stage is a world, or ought to be. Most bad plays are bad because something organic is missing from them: something that guarantees their authenticity. It can be something in the subject, the writing, the plot, the sense of character, or the authors preconceived notions about any of these.
In A Midsummer Nights Dream (Watermill, Newbury), King Theseus is being lofty on the subject. The actor is Matt Flynn, and he catches precisely the sense of this generous loftiness that you find with high-minded amateurs. Theseus thinks that the best plays are no more than shadows: if they are not up to much, your imagination will supply whats missing. Hippolyta (Emilio Doorgasingh) is quick to see the chink in the argument: if you need imagination to make the show work, then its your own imagination, not the authors. Ergo, somethings amiss.
Theseus allows the argument to peter out because he is none too hot on aesthetics; besides, the actors are coming on. Also, Shakespeare quite likes you to finish such arguments yourself. But the point of Edward Halls enchanting production is that it responds, with a thrilling sense of imagination and intelligence, to the world of the stage.
The performance takes place on and around a raised 14ft 6inx14ft 6in wooden platform: not enough room, youd think, to swing a fairy in, but Halls skill in orchestrating the action, the speed and accuracy of entrances and exits, the clarity and intelligence of the verse- speaking, create an authentic Shakespearian world. The production resonates with feeling and meaning, with what is beyond the stage as well as whats on it. Hall knows exactly, I think, where Theseus is wrong. Only the artists imagination should wake up the imagination of the audience. Where some big-name, high-maintenance directors go wrong is in missing or ignoring the cues and the clues, and then creating a world that is not Shakespeares. Theseus is nice to the mechanicals, but he would make a terrible director.
Hall has reassembled the all-male cast he directed here in Rose Rage and Henry V, but there is no sense of exhibitionism in the playing of the female roles. Just as Snout the Joiner presents Wall, so Jonathan McGuinness, Robert Hands and Richard Clothier present Hermia, Helena and Titania. There is artistic honesty and practicality in this. Do not divert attention from the play to the actor. You do not have to flounce and simper to show you are playing a woman. Acting is presentation before it is transformation.
The same refusal to turn performances into self-serving masterclasses goes for everybody else. Hall and the actors do not patronise the mechanicals: these are craftsmen who work for a living and they take their acting seriously. Starveling (Simon Scardifield) simply wants to do his best as Moon, and his indignation at being heckled has nothing showbizzy about it. The four lovers are in deadly earnest: that is what makes them funny. Bottom (Tony Bell), an amiably self-important northerner, doesnt know he has been transformed, nor Titania that her sexual tastes have moved downmarket. Hall and his actors rely, first and foremost, on the characters valuation of themselves: they know that that is the prime condition of all comedy.
This is one of the best and most exciting productions of this great play I have seen, ever. I called it enchanting but enchantment is a serious business, and it needs no amending, only an enchanted response. Like this one.
This is from The Independent.
Even fairy dust won't turn these Dream boys into girls
Where Edward Hall is concerned, boys will not only be boys they stay boys. His all-male cast are attired in long underwear, some of it with low necks to show their hairy chests; even, in the case of fairy Puck, above a tutu and Pippi Longstocking tights.
Frocks (but no wigs) are donned by the female characters, leading to some curious sights. Robert Hands, a bulky fellow in a corset over his sailor blouse and tight skirt, flapping his wrists, looks like an unhappy occupant of a 1920s dive. The imposing Richard Clothier is a rather Wagnerian Titania, his cropped hair disconcerting over black lace and green gauze, the skirt fasteners round his brawny arms big enough to restrain an elephant.
Michael Pavelka's design signals topsy-turvydom and jolly japes, but is that all we want from A Midsummer Night's Dream? The important adjectives associated with this play are "magical" and "musical," neither of which would occur to a spectator here. The lack of feminine charm and elegance in the actors' appearance and movement is not all that's awry. The cast speak in a manner that is often sloppy. Several times we hear of the "nup-shu-als", and I was startled when a chorus exhorted: "Work while the Jew is sparkling!"
Their voices are only mechanisms, not instruments. There is no sense of the lines being dainty or voluptuous, of words being savoured, of the wanderers in the forest being bewitched by their spell as much as by the fairy dust Guy Williams's crabby Oberon flings about. Nor are the characterisations sharp enough. Emilio Doorgasingh's goofy smile gives no hint of Hippolyta's discomfort as her marriage to Theseus draws near; nor does Matt Flynn's Theseus convey enough of the haughty arrogance that causes her disquiet.
Tony Bell doesn't seem ebullient enough as Bottom, but he makes a sweet ass-headed love object, with his false front teeth and George Formby accent, his woollen cap swapped for long woollen ears. This seems the extent of his metamorphosis, until Puck pulls down his trousers to reveal a woolly member the length of a draught excluder.
If Hall's approach is too prosaic for the main part of the comedy, his schoolboy fun is just right for the Pyramus-Thisbe play. Jonathan McGuinness, who has been a poignant, earnest Hermia, makes a hilariously timid Snug, his face that of a bewildered pierrot and his lion's mane making him look as ferocious as a sunflower. Though Flute is usually embarrassed at playing a lady, Jules Werner dives headlong into his impersonation of Thisbe, leaping about like a ballerina on an acid trip. It rather misses the point of the play, however, if its most successful scene is one that clumsily mocks transformation and passionate love. Like the fairies, huddled spoon-fashion and blowing tunelessly into mouth organs, this production subjects us to too many sour notes.