I know I have said it before but the level of intensity on Week 5 of rehearsals for A Midsummer Night’s Dream: A Play For The Nation rose sharply again. This was the penultimate week of the mainstream rehearsals and the final week that the professional company was due to be working in London so it was definitely time for a final push. To help with this there were link ups to both Norwich and Nottingham in order to share good practice and trade ideas. It is a wonder that there are any new ideas left to have but that, of course, is part of the joy of Shakespeare. There is always something new to discover; even if you haven’t discovered it yourself it’s likely that someone else has. Sharing has been absolutely at the heart of this project throughout – professionals with amateurs, amateurs with each other, regional theatres with local communities and so on.
On Wednesday evening it was a real treat to welcome our colleagues from the Bear Pit (one of the two teams from Stratford upon Avon) to Clapham and share our discoveries. The Saturday hubs meant that I had had plenty of shared Bottom time. However, this was the first occasion that the rest of the Tower Dreamteam had had the opportunity to work with their counterparts from another part of the country. Although there are similarities between the two teams there are some notable differences: their Quince is male and ours female, the Starvelings are the other way round and there could not be a greater difference in the physical appearance of our Snugs/Lions. It all serves to show how diverse this production is going to be as it tours the country. One aspect that will be the same, of course, is the professional cast and Lucy who is playing Puck was also on hand that evening to help us try out different ways of approaching the scene where the mechanicals rehearse Pyramus and Thisbe. We were able to demonstrate some intricate business with an almanac which had finally been resolved the evening before and a complicated exit was shown to us by the Bear Pitters. We will still need to perfect this but have a little bit more time than they do – their first performances are less than two weeks off (good luck, guys!). It was great fun working for the evening with such a talented bunch of like-minded people and we are looking forward to seeing the final results when we go up to Stratford and watch the Bear Pit company on stage in a few weeks’ time.
Friday was a big day for our team and, as it transpired a very long one. Firstly, I had a rehearsal call to go and work with Ayesha on the Titania/Bottom scenes. This was my first attempt at these; time had been at such a premium on the Saturday sessions that I had never actually got to my feet though I had spent quite a few hours observing my colleagues and how the scenes were to be structured. I had also spent a good deal of time thinking things through and having some preliminary practice with David and Karen (our director and rehearsal Titania). That said I was relieved to run the scenes through – especially given what was to come that afternoon. This was the time scheduled for the first full run through of the play and Tower had been invited to participate. There was a clear sense of expectation in the room as the professional actors arrived along with the entire creative team and the rest of the Tower players. Our one absentee was Maria who simply could not take time out of work. Erica had arranged that Sue Downing (Quince from the Kidderminster Nonentities company) who was visiting London, would substitute. Erica gathered us all together to offer some final words of encouragement, we all sang a rousing “Happy Birthday” to Sue and then we were off.
Of course there were great swathes of the production which we had never had the opportunity to watch (I had never seen Oberon in action for instance) and so there were some truly remarkable and surprising moments to appreciate. Our scenes were full of nervous energy as the adrenaline flowed; Sue’s expertise meant she fitted into our staging with little difficulty. My own scenes with Ayesha also went smoothly although I have to admit I did get Peaseblossom and Cobweb mixed up at one stage and I certainly didn’t get through the Bergomask dance unscathed. The rest of the team was also on fine form and both Adam and Al drew applause from the gathered audience which must have run to fifty people. I should mention that among these was the near-legendary former RSC Voice Director Cicely Berry now in her ninth decade; what an honour! Three hours later it was all over; I felt drained but elated but I think we acquitted ourselves well and it has shown us what things we still need to work on. Even that wasn’t quite the end – that evening we all had costume fittings with designer Tom Piper and the wardrobe team. It is great to see what we will be wearing and it provided a calming coda to what had been a tremendous day and one that I feel thoroughly privileged to have experienced.
And so to Saturday and the last of the Bottom hubs. This was attended by five of us in London linking up to our three Midlands colleagues with the opportunity for the rest of the country to tune in online as usual. The morning concentrated on the Titania/Bottom scenes and refining the detail of their two close encounters. At one stage there was quite an intense debate about the underlying sexuality of the scenes and whether Bottom’s transformation into an ass had included the acquisition of “attributes” other than a pair of ears. Nothing amiss with that of course, if anything I was a bit surprised that the topic had not arisen before. However, it was perhaps a little ironic that this was the exact time a journalist from Radio 4’s Front Row put in an appearance to investigate our rehearsal – she must have thought we were all a bit obsessed! Over the lunchbreak the same journalist interviewed us for a forthcoming feature; this time the carnal aspects of the play were carefully avoided.
When we got back to the rehearsal room a huge transition had taken place. While we had been away any remaining furniture, props and other rehearsal paraphernalia had been packed away in a van and whisked off to Stratford – even the walls had been stripped of all the notes, photographs, drawings and lists which had previously been there. Thus it was that the final afternoon’s work was carried out in a somewhat bare space and in an atmosphere of slightly Chekovian melancholy that this aspect of the work was drawing to a close. The time was spent investigating Bottom’s monologue in Act 4 and, as ever, several versions were tried; it has given me several ideas for how I might approach this key moment. And then suddenly that was it, the production’s time in London was up (well, until the actual play reaches the capital in May) and everything has moved to Stratford for final rehearsals, previews and the opening night. Although a key chapter in the production process has drawn to a close, a new and even more exciting chapter is just about to begin; best wishes to the two Stratford teams as they take us down the home straight towards opening night.