I’d like to dedicate this post to my colleague Tom Tillery who is playing Starveling in the RSC production this summer and who is 80 years young today. He was an invaluable source of help in putting this post together and as he features quite heavily in it too (having previously played Bottom, Theseus and Quince) I’d like to think it’s a bit of a celebration of his work with Tower theatre over several decades. Happy birthday Tom! My thanks are also due to Tower members Doreen Shafran, Robert Pennant Jones, David Taylor, Jonathan Norris, Karen Walker, Al Freeman and Stephen Doak for their memories of previous Tower Dreams.
A couple of posts back I gave an overview of the RSC’s various productions of a play which has now been dominating our lives for well over a year. As A Midsummer Night’s Dream: A Play For The Nation is a joint co-operative enterprise it only seems right and proper that I should follow that post with another on Tower Theatre’s various and varied productions. Currently it would seem to be the most performed title in the company’s long history.
Founded in 1932, as the Tavistock Repertory Company, The Dream was played in that very first year for just two performances. Alas the archive shows little more than that it happened in June at the Tavistock Little Theatre in Bloomsbury and that it was directed by Robert Mitchell. The only other fact I have been able to locate is that the incidental music was composed by Michael Tippett, no less. Other than that, details of the cast, etc. are lost in the mists of time.
So let’s speedily fast forward 23 years to what was (by now) the Tower Theatre and a production which seems to have been rather better documented; it was directed by Frank Smith regarded as the founder of the company. Doreen Shafran – nee Rubenstein – recalls her involvement:
Frank Smith’s book “The Insubstantial Pageant” (which details the company’s early history) has a photo of the 1955 Dream – really posed and artificial but it does prove I was in it! I played Helena and I loved it. The photograph shows that we performed in the garden of The Tower Theatre –matinées to schools. I taught in a local primary school at the time and my class was there in the audience. When I said, “So is Lysander” there was a cry of surprise – “It’s Miss!” I only have one vivid rehearsal memory. Frank was leaning against the radiator and I was to come downstage (right close to him) and begin, “How happy some o’er other some can be!” But he was shaking his head sadly that I should be doing it so badly! The children enjoyed it though!
Well Doreen, I’m happy to report that you may have been a little hard on yourself there. A contemporary review states: “Both Mary McCarthy (Hermia) and Doreen Rubenstein (Helena) were in fine form – Iooks, costume and style” and pronounced the whole production as “a pretty triumphant end to a season of high quality. “Further details can be found here.
The next production came in 1965; indeed it might be said there were two productions – or even three depending on how they are counted. It’s probably easier if I let others tell the story so over to you Mr Tillery:
The first 1965 production was directed by Jessica Taylor. I didn’t think there was anything in it for me but she insisted she wanted a young Bottom and I was persuaded to audition for it. We did it for school’s performance. There was one performance where the children were making so much noise that Tim Seely/Oberon had to come out and shout at them. Order was restored and then at the end all the girls were outside asking for his autograph. In retrospect I was glad I took on the part although rehearsals were a little strange. Jessica directed all the scenes but when it came to Pyramus and Thisbe she said “Just go away and rehearse something, bring it back and I’ll see if it’s alright.”
I can’t help but be struck by the slightly similar way we have rehearsed the current production so at least Tom’s used to working like that. One other point of note is that Bill Dudley (later known as an influential theatre designer) played Francis Flute. More on this production here.
To understand what happened next, let’s turn to Robert Pennant Jones:
I was asked to redirect the 1965 production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream since we were planning to take two productions to Arles-en-Provence, to play in the Theatre Antique; these were the redirected Dream and A Winter’s Tale with the same cast. While it was expected that some of the cast would not be available to go to France, in the event most did. The Arles adventure nearly bankrupted the company, though the achievement of playing both productions in France was a considerable organisational and artistic triumph. Tom Tillery’s performance as Bottom was one of these triumphs. I can even now still hear his hesitantly quavering voice as he launched into “the ousel cock” song. One of the Arles newspapers recorded that the part of Bottom was played by “the celebrated comedian Tontillini”.
Tom has his own distinct memories of this production:
The theatre (open air) was round the corner from the bullring so we couldn’t perform while they were being run. This meant starting at 9.00 pm which was a bit dangerous as you might go out for a meal and a glass of wine or two. But we had a great time. Then we came back to London and did it for another week for schools’ audiences. In all, playing in A Midsummer Night’s Dream took up a whole year of my life
Now…where have I heard that before? Anyway, that clears up the somewhat tortuous nature of the 1965 production(s). There is more on the latter versions here.
Another significant leap forward takes us to 1984 and a production directed by Sara Randall. This time Tom played Theseus. He remembers some difficulties over the designer reneging at the eleventh hour which left the company with a less than satisfactory set. Playing the part of Oberon in the same cast was Al Freeman (currently our Snout). His memories of this production were brief and to the point:
I had a large head dress which was slightly like having a ram’s head and a light sabre to go with it. I also spent a long while up a tree.
For more on this production click here.
1995 saw a production which played at both Le Jardin de Shakespeare, Paris (as Le Songe d’une Nuit d’Ete) as well as back home in London. Suitably there were two directors, Robert Pennant Jones and Penny Tuerk. The former recalls this was one of the first Tower productions that visited Paris:
We split rehearsals, with Penny responsible for the mechanicals. Jill Batty was a superb Titania. The success in France encouraged us to continue with our annual excursions.
Jonathan Norris was in the cast as Peter Quince:
The roles and characters of Bottom and Quince were closely mirrored by Harry Stern and me during rehearsal in that he was inclined to overrule about how things should be said and done – art imitating life! Jill Batty was complimented by someone about her dancing and she said something like “No! – I just prance about a bit.” Clive Hammett as Starveling was actually not a company member but was an ASM. When he appeared on stage we performed it as if someone hadn’t turned up, and so he would have to do – art imitating life again!
Two shortened versions of the play came next. In 2002, Tower Theatre got to perform The Dream at the other rather more famous Tower – The Tower of London. This was as part of a corporate event for an international management consultants and involved Robert Hardy (that’s the Robert Hardy) providing linking narration in what was a heavily truncated version running at just 45 minutes and directed by Peter Novis. Tom this time played Peter Quince. Also in the cast was Karen Walker playing Titania – Karen is now our rehearsal Titania for the current production. The production was then repeated in the Tower Theatre garden. See here for further details. 2005 saw another
shortened version given as a private tour to an arts festival in Bathmen, Holland and then at various gardens in Sussex, London and Suffolk, directed by Janet South and organised by David Taylor – our current director. Karen again played Titania (it’s obviously habit forming) and she remembers that there was a female Quince (Jill Batty) and that the children who appeared in it were sourced locally at each venue – again this is very reminiscent of how our show will be working.
In 2012 (as it had in 1995) The Dream was chosen for double duty in Paris and in London and as before had shared directing duties – this time by Jean Carr and John Morton. My immediate predecessor as Bottom, Stephen Doak, kept his own record of what seems to be a very damp Parisian affair:
TUES: Drizzling half-heartedly through the first half before cheering up and making a bit more effort in the second. I cunningly reblocked myself under the shelter of trees for all my first half scenes. Hopefully this was interpreted as generosity on my part, allowing my fellow actors to use the full stage.
WED: Today we were treated to unflinching Biblical rain. Half the cast had caught a bus which booted them off in the middle of nowhere after a passenger was taken ill and had walked for 20 minutes, arriving wetter than anything you’ve seen outside an aquarium and with only the prospect of soaking their costumes ahead of them. The tunnels were awash. Water flowed in little streams through two of the four entrances. Costumes and footwear were swiftly removed to higher ground. In the event, the rain stopped minutes before curtain up. On we went, but my donkey ears were a bit damp.
So, it’s a long long way from 1932 to 2016; some 50 Tower actors have played the Mechanicals in the various incarnations (though only Tom has played more than one – he’s currently on his third) and writing this piece has made me all too conscious of the baton the current team is picking up in representing the company and working with the RSC. When I talked to Tom about his long involvement with Shakespeare’s comedy we were sitting on the terrace at the Barbican as we waited to start a rehearsal there and I concluded by asking him what had been his favourite role out of all those he’d played in The Dream. Without a moment’s hesitation he said “Bottom”. No pressure then!