No Darkness to this Dream...

It's been a while since I posted any sort of theatre review on this blog. That's for a couple of reasons. First: lack of time - that's part of the reason my general blogging output has decreased over the past couple of years, and as I have prioritised my leisure time I have decided that sitting in a corner typing on a keyboard late at night is probably not good for my mental health!
Second: a bit of perspective - my blogging has always been primarily for an audience of one (which has been pretty close to my readership level at times) and I'm no longer fooling myself that anyone is really interested in my rantings about plays, that are frequently over or moved on before I have had time to "review" them... where I have enjoyed something I have generally said so on social media... Where I haven't I have (more recently) kept shtum. 
But last week I had the pleasure of going with our church theatre group (a group dedicated to watching rather than performing theatre) to see the RSC's Production of "A Midsummer Night's Dream" at the Belfast Grand Opera House - this was their so-called "Play for the Nation", staged to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, involving amateur companies all over the country to play the "Rude Mechanicals" and stage the "play within the play." Locally the amateurs were all drawn from the Belvoir Players and Bottom was played by a friend, Trevor Gill. 
I always find it dodgy reviewing, or even noting I am present at a production involving a friend, given that I have little or no capacity to hide any critical feelings... But any such fears were unfounded with this production. I hadn't initially planned to review it, for the reasons above... There are plenty of other, largely favourable reviews for you to find if you want... But this isn't a review... more a reflection... because the run was over very quickly and this was the end of the tour... (although if anyone happens to be reading this and can get a ticket for the production when it returns home to Stratford, I can heartily endorse it.) 
However, in response to another facebook friend's reflections on Huffington Post, Trevor Gill was bold enough to invite me to comment in further depth... So this is it. 
I said at the time that it was a thoroughly uplifting experience... Its joy was positively therapeutic. I had had a heavy few days, being involved with a couple of difficult pastoral situations and wading my way through some weighty church matters, including a substantial piece of writing, so it was a blessed relief to come into a theatre and simply enjoy a story I was familiar with, being well told, with Shakespeare richness of language and poetry being well delivered (on the whole - although Laura Riseborough playing Helena could have done with slowing down and speaking up instead of gabbling her lines at times). That combined with the colour and vibrancy of the staging, the musical scoring, the strong sense of comedy and the local resonance brought by the mechanicals, added up to a production that put a broad smile on my face and even elicited more than a few laughs (although not as many or as loud as some of the audience - including my wife, who nearly died at one point - but there is no accounting for her sense of humour... she laughs at Harry Hill). Indeed the production itself could be said to have had a broad smile on its face from begining to end - despite a set, production photos and costuming of the Athenians that spoke of coming out of the aftermath of war... They didn't make much of those overtones, and largely glossed over most of the complexity and darker threads within the play... Theseus' "martial wooing/conquest" of Hippolyta was barely hinted at, Oberon's dubious motivation for his actions (wanting possession of Titania's orphan boy) is simply accepted, as is the drug-induced resolution of the Hermia, Helena, Demetrius, Lysander love quadrangle, never mind the bestiality implied in the Titania/Bottom affair... Indeed the lacivious sexuality implied in the woodland scenes was largely absent resulting in a remarkably chaste love story (by contrast a school production I was involved in many years ago was summed up by one elderly matron saying "It was very good, but there was too much sex!"). But the joy of Shakespeare is that each and every play can be staged in so many ways: each director takes their choice of direction through the complex wood of the scripts. I'm told Russell T. Davies' BBC production (unsurprisingly) makes more of some of the darker elements in "The Dream" (and introduces a few more from what I hear), but I didn't watch it as I didn't want to compare and contrast... I wanted to enjoy the RSC production in its own right. 
And enjoy it I did. I particularly enjoyed the performance of Lucy Ellinson as Puck, who had a touch of the EmCee from Cabaret about her, a mischievious spirit, introducing and concluding the whole endeavour and weaving in a slightly sinister strand to the whole. But the highlight was, for me, the locals... not only the Belvoir mechanicals (with Trevor Gill playing a remakably sympathetic/warm Bottom (no pun intendended), Chris Curry a wonderfully efffete Flute/Thisbe and Jeeie McGreevy giving the few lines of Starveling her all, so she did) but also the boys of St. Malachy's College playing the fairy train... Because for me this was a reminder of how I fell in love with Shakespeare. Not reading it as a dry text line by line in a classroom, but performing it under the guidance of teachers/directors who understood and loved the richness of the text and wanted to convey that not only to an audience but a new generation. What a privilege it must have been for those boys (and the folks in the Belvoir players) to be part of this production with the RSC, and to feel the text truly come alive in front of an appreciative audience. I hope that the memory will live with them as long as my humbler memories of schoolboy Shakespeare have lived with me... But it also makes me sad that so few young people get this opportunity to enjoy Shakespeare "from the inside." The school I attended can no longer stage full productions because of the syllabus demands on teachers and students, although they have at least got involved in the "Schools' Shakespeare Festival" where they join others in staging 30 minute versions of various plays. At another reputable grammar school I was shocked to discover, when I asked, that they had not done anything to mark the 400th Anniversary of Shakespeare's death... that is simply appalling. This  production in particular, would have been ideal to take Shakespeare virgins to, indeed a friend who had never been to a Shakespeare play before apparently laughed the whole way through. 
I doubt that he would find as much to laugh about in most productions of Shakespeare, but I hope he will not be afraid to give another one a go... and perhaps one with a few darker threads... 



Anonymous said…
I'll take that Professor... The 'warm Bottom' is interesting. The text supports an interpretation where Bottom is not a very likeable character at all. He tries to take all the parts, he bosses the fairies and at no time does he ever seem thankful for having fallen into such good times. The RSC genuinely allowed us to make our own interpretation but, in the case of Bottom, steered me out of any cynicism at all by suggesting that, within the context of an 'up' production, it wasn't helpful. There's a reading of Bottom, again supported by Shakespeare's multi-layered text, where he's an innocent abroad, relentlessly positive, entirely accepting of everything and everyone and up for anything. I may have said at the Q&A that Bottom is a guy that it would be great to have a pint with - but only one as after a while you'd want to throttle him... Trevor

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