What could be better than a journey to Stratford-upon-Avon to see a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream? How about a journey to Stratford-upon-Avon to see two productions of A Midsummer Night’s Dream? Given that it would soon be our turn to perform on the RSC’s home turf and that we’ve had the best part of six weeks off this seemed an ideal way to reboot and to get prepared for the final push. I wanted to visit one of the midweek matinees in the third or fourth week which meant seeing either the Leeds/Bradford mechanicals or those from Nottingham. Actually I really wanted to see both as I’d so enjoyed what both my fellow Bottoms (Barry and Becky respectively) had brought to the part in rehearsal but a choice, unfortunately, had to be made. Resorting to the well-worn tradition of the coin toss, fate chose Leeds/Bradford. Sorry Nottingham but I promise I did watch your version of the Best Bottoms TV programme and it certainly looked like you were having a ball.
The journey up on the train was uneventful and Stratford looked delightful in some rare midsummer sunshine. Shortly after 1pm I took my seat in a packed RST auditorium for the Play For A Nation version. On this occasion I had deliberately chosen to opt for a seat in the Circle as I wanted to get a feel for the view from that position. The RST’s auditorium is steep and it also has a thrust stage (as opposed to the more traditional proscenium stage at the Barbiacan) so we will need to give some thought to our blocking and the techniques which will need to be employed to ensure all members of the audience feel included. I caught the eye of the lady sitting two seats along from me who nodded, leant forward and said “I think you were the Bottom in London”. I was slightly taken aback but said that I indeed was and asked how she knew. It turned out that she had seen the production at the Barbican and was so impressed with it that she thought she would bring her mother to see it at Stratford. There were murmurings/pointings from others around us who had obviously overheard but at that point Tarek and Lucy appeared on stage, the lights dimmed, the play began and I was able to sink back into anonymity.
The performance was a captioned one; it was quite tempting to keep checking the screen to ensure there had been no paraphrasing but of course there wasn’t. We’re talking about professionals here – even the amateurs are professional in their approach. There was a sense of comfort about the production by now; rather like putting on a favourite cardigan though of course for the majority of the audience this was unfamiliar territory and it was great to hear them react on cue to things that I knew were about to happen (Ben Goffe’s sudden appearance towards the end of Act 1 still brings the house down).
I made mental notes as the play proceeded as to exits and entrances. A lot of these were along the walkways through the stalls audience known as voms – short for vomitoria, though this has nothing to do with being sick. Everything was just slightly different on the thrust stage itself; the main technique seemed to be to play on a diagonal line – somewhat similar to the positioning used for “in the round” staging. At the same time I enjoyed the performances of my fellow Mechanicals and loved some of the new ideas (to me anyway) they brought to the roles. As we have constantly found there are a number of ways but no single right way to interpret these Shakespearean characters.
At half time I went outside to stretch my legs and had a wander around the grounds and gardens. One thing that caught my eye was the Stratfords of the World Friendship Flowerbed which featured beautiful willow sculptures of Bottom and Titania by artist Emma Stothard. Suddenly I spotted most of the Canterbury team who had just arrived in order to pick up the baton the following day. They were evidently excited at the prospect of appearing in Stratford (who wouldn’t be?) but just a little bit sad that their Flute (Adam) was going to be unable to perform due to ill health. Though hardly the same, I am sure he was with the team in spirit; get better soon, Adam.
The second half of the play fairly flew by and my resolve to keep a mental note of the exits and entrances rapidly went out of the window as I got caught up in the action of the play generally and the play within a play more specifically. Again some very different choices from our own made for a highly diverting 20 minutes or so (it’s easy to forget how long the last scene actually runs). Then we were into the Bergomask, the children’s big moment in the blessing and finally Puck’s farewell.
I took myself round to the stage door – reminding myself that very soon we would be going through it as performers – where I met up with several of the cast. Ken (the Leeds amateur director) was particularly enlightening as to what to expect during the first day of intense rehearsal and Barry was, as ever, on good form. AD Kim was also there and she gave me a quick briefing on what our team should be doing to prepare for our performances. Despite being the last day of June the weather was quite chilly so a brisk walk beside the Avon was called for and this took me in the right direction for my next destination. My theatrical main course at the RST had been well and truly digested and it was now time for dessert – interestingly this was to be made out of the same ingredients.
I was heading for The Other Place, the RSC’s studio theatre, which was hosting the Playmaking Festival. Schools local and national had put in a bid to perform a specially commissioned half hour Dream and the fifty chosen ( Playmaking Festival Programme) were performing across two weeks. I had booked to see Stratford College’s version (simply because this was conducive to my timings) but there were five different schools performing throughout that day. What a great experience for the young performers and the group I saw were evidently relishing what they were doing.
They were Post 16 students on a BTEC Performing Arts course and contained some highly promising performers; they’ll have to forgive me if I refer to character rather than actual names but I’ve no way of knowing the latter. Oberon had a very strong speaking voice and Puck was a good foil to his scheming. The four lovers were well cast and the girls, particularly, came across well. Perhaps I’m slightly biased but I was most impressed by the Mechanicals who had a good sense of comedy both verbal and physical and threw themselves into what they were doing with abandon. Top turns came from Bottom and Flute and I was pleased to be able to tell them so afterwards.
I wished I could have stayed to watch the primary school that were to perform in the next slot but time and the rail system wait for no man. So I headed back to the station reflecting that the next time I would be in Stratford it would be to appear at the top Shakespearean venue in the country (the world?). Time to start getting serious again!
The production runs for two more weeks in Stratford upon Avon. Click on the image below for details
Monday 11th and Tuesday 12th July at 7.15