The poet John Keats once said: “Nothing ever becomes real ’til it is experienced” and so it was that the Tower Dreamteam took themselves off to Stratford upon Avon to have a weekend experiencing the final outcome (sorry, latest incarnation) of A Midsummer Night’s Dream: A Play For The Nation. We had been planning this trip right from the time the tickets first went on sale so anticipation was high especially as this was the first weekend following the play’s official opening.
Arriving in Stratford on Friday afternoon the first task was to visit the RSC gift shop to pick up a selection of merchandise which the team had preordered – mugs, key rings, T shirts and so forth; even the RSC has to have one eye on commercial possibilities. After that it was time for a meal in the Black Swan (aka The Dirty Duck). Although I’d been to Stratford on several occasions this was the first time I’d been in this particular location. I’d always assumed that this being the hostelry of choice for the acting fraternity in Stratford was a bit of a myth but apparently not; they are a very definite presence being just a stone’s throw from the stage door.
Our show of choice for the Friday evening was the new version of Cervantes’ Don Quixote starring David Threlfall as DQ and Rufus Hound as Sancho Panza. I first remember seeing Threlfall in the epic RSC Nicholas Nickleby back in the 80s, indeed that is apparently the last time he worked with the company, so it was great to see him back where he belongs treading the boards in the Swan. He was every inch the gaunt and addled obsessive. The play was still in preview and there were one or two technical problems which halted the show. The famous windmills were a particular problem and led to Rufus Hound doing some hasty improv while the stage management team put things right. Generally speaking I found it to be a solid production; the main problem with it is that the source material is so episodic and repetitive in tone that it makes for a long evening. However, the two central performances were good and grew in stature as the play progressed. I’m afraid, for me, it will never hit the heights scaled by Nick Nick but it was good starter to precede the main course on the next day.
Before that, though, we took ourselves off to an extra event on the Saturday morning called A Midsummer Night’s Dream: Unwrapped. The RSC’s Unwrapped events offer audiences a glimpse into the rehearsal process; having been fully involved with this ourselves our interest lay in how the RSC would explain this mammoth process to the general public. The event was chaired by producer Ian Wainwright who introduced David Mears and Nicky Cox (Bottom and the group director from the Bear Pit company), Associate Director Sophie Ivatts and Laura Harding (Hippolyta and understudy to Titania). As well as the Tower Team the audience also contained representatives of other companies from Newcastle, Belfast and Truro and we were all invited to contribute to the Q and A session. Then it was time to demonstrate the rehearsal process itself and David and Laura were asked to run through the scene where Bottom first encounters Titania. It was then that an absolutely thrilling moment took place when first Trevor (Belfast’s Bottom) and then I were brought onto stage to run through the same scene again. This unscheduled first appearance on the RST stage was totally unexpected but one of many moments to treasure and the applause which followed for all three of us was affirming and reassuring. In hindsight it was probably best that it was an unprepared for moment as I don’t think I’d have had any sleep the previous night if I had known in advance what was going to happen.
After the event was finished all of we amateurs took the chance to explore the stage and take one or two souvenir photographs. Leaving the auditorium on a bit of a high, it was time for a stroll round Stratford. This was useful in that a good leg stretch was definitely needed but it also allowed the BBC (who had come up to meet us) to get some footage of us in Shakespeare’s home town. The sunny if brisk morning was delightful and the fresh air meant we were ready for the big moment of seeing the Dream in all its glory.
It turned out that Laura’s run throughs with us that morning couldn’t have been timed better as Ayesha had called in unwell and therefore the understudy was suddenly called upon to perform; Lila (usually playing Moth) doubled the part of Hippolyta. It has to be said they both did a first class job as did our colleagues from the Bear Pit who were performing as the Mechanicals. Although we had seen some of what they were doing a few weeks back when they came down to London for rehearsal and some more via the video links we had never seen them all the way through. They seemed to be having the time of their lives and I was struck by how high they were setting the bar for the rest of us when it comes to our turn. Lucy Ellison as Puck was very compelling, playing off the audience at every opportunity and producing a magical performance. Chu was brooding and commanding as Oberon and the Lovers’ scenes had never looked sharper. I was also highly amused by Jon Trenchard as a disdainful Philostrate and Ben Goffe brought the house down with a moment which I won’t spoil by recounting here (would that some of the critics had been as circumspect!). The production really looks bedded in now and sound, lighting and effects all combined to create a memorable backdrop to the action. The live music is the icing on an already extremely rich cake – I’d like a very big slice please!
We had some time to kill before heading back to London – the scandalous £50 difference in the rail fare between 4.30 and 6.30 rather made up our minds for us on that score. So after meeting up with the matinee cast at the stage door it was then back to the Dirty Duck to share experiences with colleagues from around the country – Trevor (Belfast Bottom), Becky (Nottingham Bottom) and Barry (Bradford Bottom) had all been in the audience that afternoon along with other colleagues from their respective groups. I must also give a special mention to Graham Fewell (the Castle Players’ Snug). His avowed intention is to attend a performance of all the productions nationwide; hats off to such a committed endeavour. Of course there are a myriad of plans for us all to visit each other in our various locations but nothing, I think, quite as truly comprehensive as that.
All too soon it was time to head for home leaving us to reflect that the next time we’ll be in town will probably be when we are performing in July. Meanwhile the production has now finished its first (sold out) run in Stratford and everyone has a week off to gird their loins and be with their loved ones (congratulations to Alex Tompkins in the pro cast who has become the second cast father in as many weeks – see previous post) before the tour proper starts in Newcastle; then it’ll be coming soon to a town near you. I’ll let some of the audience members so far have the final word
There are no performances of the production this week. The full UK tour begins next week. Please click on image below to show tour dates and venues