Working on A Midsummer Night’s Dream: A Play For The Nation has been a roller coaster of emotions …see told you that was going to happen, didn’t I? Some definite high points on the ride were reached in our two performance runs. The first of these was at the Barbican in May 2016 and the second at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford upon Avon in July. This forms the content of Part Three of our story told in pictures. If you missed the previous parts then click here for Part One and here for Part Two.
So here’s Part Two of our story told in pictures. If you missed Part One then click here first and see what led up to this point. You might also want to read the blog posts that accompany these pictures. This section looks at the six weeks of the project rehearsals in January and February 2016. Fortunately for us in Tower Theatre most of the rehearsals were relatively nearby in the RSC’s rooms in Clapham though there were always video broadcasts from other parts of the country (hence all the photos of people sitting down watching screens). Proximity meant I could attend some of the professional rehearsals as an observer and, of course, there were also the Bottom Hubs every Saturday. So from first read through to final run through here’s what it was like.
To follow the written story of the second part of our theatrical adventure, start reading here
The Dream is now over. To find out more about the 14 amateur companies which took part, click on the side bar to access the page on each location.
A picture is said to paint a thousand words…OMG cliché alert! However clichés, by their very nature, contain grains of truth and so it is in this case. There have been scores of photos taken by the participating amateurs up and down the country commemorating and celebrating A Midsummer Night’s Dream: A Play For The Nation. And Tower Theatre is no exception. So here’s Part One of our story told in pictures which can be enjoyed for its own sake or as a substitute for reading the reams of words I’ve already written on the subject. Hopefully, of course, you’ll have a go at both. This section covers the application and audtion process, the preparatory tasks and workshops and throws in a little bit of Xmass for good measure.
Barbican onstage photo by Topher McGrillis RSC and Task 2 photos by Ruth Anthony
To follow the written story of the first part of our theatrical adventure, start reading here
The Dream is now over. To find out more about the 14 amateur companies which took part, click on the side bar to access the page on each location.
And suddenly, there it was – gone! July 16th 2016 – the absolutely final day of A Midsummer Night’s Dream: A Play For The Nation. The evening needed to be a little bit special and fortunately it was. This had been such a big theatrical event that some form of closure was absolutely essential if there weren’t to be dozens of gibbering wrecks around the country.
Many of the amateur teams had been finished for some time but our performances had only been at the beginning of the same week; so we hardly had time to draw breath before the end was upon us. Our previous “ending” at the Barbican had produced a massive comedown and while this one wasn’t quite so severe (there being only two performances for us to give at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre) the pangs were still quite sharp and lasted a couple of days. The real “downer” (for me anyway) was in the days immediately following the last night at Stratford but as I don’t want to dwell on the negatives let’s concentrate on the upside of our final Dream day.
On this last Saturday our team all made its way back separately to Stratford. I had been having a couple of days r and r in a wonderful country house hotel quite nearby so I was back in Stratford by lunchtime. I had thought about getting a ticket for the Swan Theatre to see a performance – after all I had nearly inadvertently appeared there a few nights previously – but, of course, this is Stratford upon Avon on a Saturday afternoon in the middle of the tourist season so there really wasn’t a ghost of a chance. Instead I headed for
The Dell the RSC’s outside performance space and scene of the fairy portal camp/flashmob a few weeks previously. Playing here was group called the Handlebards (sic) a group of four peripatetic young women (there is an equivalent all male group too). Their USP is that they are cycling from London to Fife between July and September stopping off and giving performances of Romeo and Juliet and The Taming of The Shrew en route carrying with them “all of the necessary set, props and costume to perform extremely energetic, charmingly chaotic and environmentally sustainable Shakespeare plays”.
Well this sounded like fun and indeed it was. I expected a highly truncated version of Romeo and Juliet but not a bit of it. Most of the dialogue was intact though it tended to be played for comedy rather than any lasting seriousness; that’s not a criticism, as on a rare hot afternoon this was far more suitable for the casual audience who lounged on the grass in front of the rudimentary stage. Best described as “rough theatre” some of the staging was quite delightful. Instead of swords, bicycle pumps were utilised and the costumes were suggestive of character rather than attempts to provide anything full on. I was often reminded of the Rude Mechanicals’ attempts to mount a serious version of Pyramus and Thisbe only for them to find it falling apart around them. The cast worked extremely hard covering nineteen roles between them. They all had their moments but I was particularly taken by Lotte Tickner as a bawdy Nurse, a lisping Prince, a meowing Tybalt (“king of cats”), and a water spray wielding Friar John (long story – don’t ask). The performance finished only fifty minutes before they were due to do it all again (and then Shrew twice on the Sunday). They must be physically very fit but I suppose if you’re cycling all that way between shows then you probably will be.
After a last group meal at the Dirty Duck with most of the rest of the Tower team, it was time for that momentous last performance which was to feature Belfast’s Belvoir Players. As well as ourselves there were a goodly number from quite a few of the other amateur companies in the audience and for those unable to get a ticket the local Bear Pit group was hosting a pre after show party (!) at their theatre. It was strange to listen to all the lines slipping away one by one – never to be spoken again as part of this particular production – especially those of the Mechanicals. That’s the nature of theatre though, it is immediate and in the moment and needs the live audience element to really make it work (I confess to having some ambivalence towards cinema showings of “live” productions, though have certainly used them to see things I might otherwise have missed). It was particularly joyous to see the children in this last performance as they were from a local Special School. Here was the RSC really demonstrating inclusivity and, of course, just a couple of days earlier they had given their first Shakespearian “relaxed” performance for an audience including people with an Autism Spectrum Condition, sensory and communication disorders, or a learning disability.
The last few minutes of the play definitely brought a lump to the throat and the final lines (delivered by Lucy Ellinson as Puck) were particularly pertinent calling, as they do, for audience approval; it can certainly be claimed that the project as a whole achieved that. There was a burst of fervid applause, the performers took their last curtain call, flowers were thrown on to the stage and then suddenly the houselights were up and the show was over not for just that night or even that week but for ever. I confess I stayed in my seat for some minutes gathering my thoughts and contemplating what a fantastic journey we (the amateurs, the pros, the schoolchildren, the directors, the creative, technical and support staff) had all been on. Unbelievable, truly remarkable and absolutely unique.
And so to that traditional staple – the after show party. This was somewhat bigger (250 people plus) than the customary am dram affair, which is often squeezed in during the small hours after a backbreaking period of set striking and theatre clearing. None of that for us this time so it was straight off to the RSC’s studio theatre The Other Place which had been cleared for the occasion. It was a lively noisy affair populated by a myriad of Mechanicals as well as the professionals and everyone else associated with the production. RSC Artistic Director Greg Doran said a few heartfelt words about the project’s beginnings, the RSC’s hopes about what would come to pass and their huge delight at what had been achieved. Then he handed over to Erica who spoke with her customary charm and eloquence about what the project had meant to her and how she hoped it had touched all of our lives – don’t worry about that, it definitely has. She also speculated on what the future might bring and how although the Dream project really could not, would not and even should not be repeated the elements that made up its constituent parts should be encouraged to thrive and prosper. The project was declared officially over, Chris Nyak (Demetrius) presented Erica with a huge framed picture containing images of every adult who had appeared on stage in the run and then a short video featuring the amateurs was shown in which Erica and her team were thanked through the rewritten words of the song “Time Of Our Lives”. This was the videoing referred to in the last post and was co-ordinated by Nottingham’s Becky Morris; it was a bit of fun but I also thought it was entirely in the spirit of the early rehearsals in which all shared via the medium of video.
After that it was eating, drinking, dancing, anecdote swapping, photo taking and general revelry until the small hours.
Tarek and Sam – musical genius
Five Bottoms in a row
Eventually I found myself back at the Falcon hotel wondering how anything could top the experience we had all been through. I’ve met so many wonderful people over the last year – brilliant Bottoms, fantastic Flutes, sensational Snugs, superb Snouts, superlative Starvelings, quite awseome Quinces and dazzling directors. Not to mention the preeminent professionals, the terrific technicals, commendable creatives, a stupendous support team and everyone else connected with this truly magnificent project. Above all these people, however, sits one courageous and life affirming individual – all hail Erica Whyman and her “most rare vision.” That’s nearly it for this blog, folks. Just one or two more posts and that will be another Dream over. In case I forget to say it later – thanks for keeping me company
The Dream is now over. To find out more about the 14 amateur companies which took part, click on the side bar to access the page on each location.
Well that was something else, it really was. If I’m being honest I think that after appearing at the Barbican earlier this year I may have been a little blasé about our dates at Stratford. After all we’d proved that we could do it and take an audience with us, hadn’t we? The critical reception had been highly positive and the team had bonded as a real unit, hadn’t they? How could anything possibly surpass that? Well something could and it did. And that was our first night on the RST stage a place of real wonder and enchantment. What a playing space, what a wonderful set up, what a fantastic audience, what an experience.
The day began at 9.00 with a tour of the building which I found quite confusing simply because there weren’t many windows on the outside world which, personally, I find disorientating. However there were plenty of signs showing where everything was so that would be alright, wouldn’t it? Wouldn’t it? We were taken to the dressing rooms which were very nicely situated overlooking the River Avon and with a balcony on which to relax.
Then it was down to the stage to get on with the day’s work with directing supremo Erica. There was masses to do as the thrust staging meant reconfiguring much of what we had been used to. But of course the RSC is a very well-oiled machine and had already put eleven other teams through their paces earlier in the run so all we had to do was listen carefully and put into practice what they had already established would work. There was also the opportunity to do some last minute refining of the way scenes were played which would, inevitably, help to keep the production and our performances sharp and focused.
Next the pro cast started arriving which led to some emotional moments of reunion and there was a new troupe of schoolchildren to welcome – this time from Christ Church Primary. We spent some time on the last ten minutes of the play and I was instantly reminded what a joyous finale it is. A brief break and it was back on stage for our warm up vocal and physical work with the stunningly good Michael Corbidge and Polly Bennett. Eventually the rest of the cast appeared for the full company warm up with exercises from the “old favourites “ box and then it was time to get changed and await the big moment.
As I had at the Barbican, I felt quite surprisingly relaxed before going on – this turned out to be misplaced. On my second line I went to move forward only to find my ankles hobbled by my workman’s apron which had somehow come adrift and fallen to the ground. Great – my first time on the Stratford stage and I was the victim of a wardrobe malfunction! Nothing daunted I hauled it back into place and went through the rest of the scene with one hand firmly clamped on the offending clothing and hoping that nobody in the 1,000 strong audience had noticed – fat chance! Strangely enough the incident sharpened me up mentally and made my delivery more focused and crisper than it had possibly ever been. I knew I only had two chances at this and wanted to make them count.
However that was not an end to the potential horrors that awaited. There had been a significant number of changes with regards to entrance and exits, particularly for me. After the apron business I didn’t want anything else to go wrong. So I immediately started to think ahead to where I was next going to appear. Having experienced some disorientation earlier I thought I’d actually better make my way physically to the vom entrance to assure myself I knew where it was and where I would be going twenty minutes hence. There’s a plethora of signs backstage “Stage Left” “Stage Right etc. One pointed to “the Voms” and so I followed the arrows, through a couple of pass doors until I could hear actor’s voices. The problem is they weren’t saying anything I recognised as A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Then I heard the word Mephistopheles….but that’s a character in Dr Faustus…..which the RSC are doing in the Swan Theatre! Somehow I’d wandered into the backstage area of the second RSC stage and was in imminent danger of making an unscheduled appearance in two different productions on the same night. Fortunately I was able to retrace my steps to where I’d started without further incident. When I ‘fessed up later to Erica and Kim, I’m not sure whether they felt like laughing or crying but it did make for another memorable moment in this amazing project.
Fortunately, after this, things followed an upward curve as I motored through the scenes with Ayesha and the fairies – indeed the bower scene seemed to go down better than ever before. And then of course the comic highlight that is Pyramus and Thisbe which, as we have always found, went down a storm. Erica had made some minor adjustments to the actual playing which helped to build the laughs and the Bergomask was a joy. You can really see everyone in the RST audience (no seat is more than 15 metres from the playing area) and it was a real thrill to see the looks of pleasure on so many smiling faces.
The aftershow was a bit of a whirl with a drinks reception in the Swan bar. A number of old and dear friends had travelled to Stratford and I was touched by their enthusiasm and positive comments. Leanne from the Barbican had come up to see the show so it was lovely to see her again. Sam Redford’s father, himself a professional actor, paid us some very sincere compliments. Producers Ian and Claire were full of justified pride at the theatrical coup they had pulled off. To be honest it all became a bit too much and I had to step aside for a few minutes to regain my composure.
So one more show to go. One more last thrilling moment before it’s finally time to wake up. Let’s make it the best Dream ever!
I always knew this would be the hard one to write – the last day of performance week – and so it has turned out. A combination of extremely long days, euphoria, massive physical exertion, poor eating habits, lack of sleep and high levels of concentration have taken their toll, hence this last piece is a bit later than originally promised. Anyway, let’s to it and see if it doesn’t provide some sort of catharsis.
The day began with yet another new experience as the RSC was offering a “touch tour” for those attending the matinee performance and who would be using the audio description facility. The tour gave audience members the opportunity to meet some of the cast, explore the set and handle some of the key costumes and props. This was a really interesting half hour and it was evident that to the patrons in attendance it would make all the difference to their appreciation of the play. I was asked to “model” the donkey ears and run through a few lines so that the sound of my voice would be familiar to our guests. They also posed some questions about how hot I got and how quickly I had to change. I explained that I had three people to get me into the ears (one for the headset, one for dabbing some red make up on and one to hold the torch by the light of which the others worked), that they were then removed by Puck onstage and that the makeup was removed in the wings by ASM Lindsey scrubbing my face with a wet cloth – most invigorating!
After the regular warm ups it was more or less straight into the afternoon matinee which as well as being audio described was to be captioned – not that any of this would affect what we were doing in the slightest. The performance is probably best described as a game of two halves. Things seemed a bit nervy in the first half (though personally I felt less so than on the previous evening) and there was a definite blip in our second scene which, fortunately, was able to be very quickly rescued. David came round to the dressing rooms at half time to give us a pep talk and this seemed to liven us up and provide a better second half. By the time we got to Pyramus and Thisbe things were swimming along very nicely again and this last scene, as ever, went down a storm.
Company manager Suzi
Stage Manager Jenny
In between shows it was time to start clearing up, gathering together greetings cards and presents and getting things ready for a later departure (not something I wanted to think about, believe me, but it had to be done). Various messages about the clear up procedures came from stage manager Jenny and company manager Suzi; as in everything else they are absolute models of efficiency but all done in a kindly and friendly manner. A quick meal in the Barbican’s Green Room with pros Alex, Ben and Jack revealed that they too were thinking about the immediate future and the journey up to the next venue in Cardiff. A definite feeling of finality was starting to set in. Back up in dressing room F3, dresser Jen appeared with our freshly laundered costumes (don’t know how they turn things round so quickly) and it was time to get ready for the final show.
I’m pleased to report that we went out on a high. From the moment we first came on I could feel that the audience were with us and as it was a now or never situation I decided to use all my reserves to give them a good night. There’s a fine balance, of course, and we had been warned about overpushing or becoming self indulgent; I think we managed to stay on the right side of this particular concern. A little extra bounce, a little extra swagger, a slightly more playful grin with Ayesha and just a hint more of audience engagement and I think it was possibly the best performance of the week – running a close neck and neck with Thursday evening. There were several emotional moments in the last half hour (mostly offstage but see the last paragraph below) but generally the trend was upbeat and celebratory. I hadn’t particularly enjoyed the Bergomask section in the early days but over the final week had found myself carrying it out with more abandon – if perhaps slightly less polish each night. For this final time I was doing it for myself and I couldn’t have cared less who (or if anyone) was watching. As Adam and I swung into our final pose a little voice whispered “You did it! You really did it!”. There was one more final extraordinary and very touching moment. At the curtain call the professionals went down on one knee and applauded us; that really finished me off!
Things moved apace after that. A swift get out in which I managed to leave my gifts of Dream Tour and Barbican T shirts behind – since located and set to one side for later collection – was effected. It was most unusual of course to not be going through the wearying process of striking the set and clearing the stage; every am drammer’s bugbear on the last night. For once there was a professional crew (I counted about 20 people) swiftly deconstructing the scenery and loading it onto a huge waiting van outside. I, for one, was mightily relieved. There were a few more well-wishers at the stage door and I reflected on how so many of our fellows had put in an appearance to cheer us on. Respect to the Canterbury Players team, Peter Cockerill from up north, the ever lovely Bradford Barry, Amelia from just down the road and part of Norwich’s Common Lot, Dorothy all the way from Cornwall and especially Graham for stop 12 on his tour of all venues; we thank you from the heart of our Bottoms. Just time for a brief celebration (glass of water for me as I got to the bar past last orders), lots (and I mean lots) of fond farewells and then the last train home.
As I fell into bed I reflected on a key moment that evening and one aspect of the play that was definitely different in performance. This was the “I have had a most rare vision” monologue towards the “latter end of the play”. Alone on stage for this section it is Bottom’s (and if I’m honest my) big moment. That night as I spoke the words they seemed to have a new resonance encapsulating not only what had taken place for Bottom but also what had happened on a personal level over the last year and a half:
I have had a most rare vision. I had a dream past the wit of man to say what dream it was. Man is but an ass if he go about to expound this dream.
Gentle reader, the words were Shakespeare’s, the feelings were Bottom’s but the very real tears were mine.
This week the production is at the New Theatre in Cardiff– click on the image below to reveal full details.
An early call meant setting out in the rush hour and manipulating a bag full of stuff on the Tube. In the normal course of events (though not really sure what “normal” is any more) this would have meant costumes, make up, towels and a whole raft of other bits and pieces. But of course when you’re working with the RSC that’s all laid on. So the aforementioned bag was actually full of first night prezzies – more of which anon.
First job after signing in this morning was to get into costume. I actually have a degree of choice here with alternative versions of a 1940’s working man’s garb. Thus there’s a coat, for instance, which I can wear or not as the mood takes me. Apparently few of my colleagues have opted for this which I presume is in order to keep heat levels tolerable and, after all the play is A MidSUMMER Night’s Dream so I’ll probably follow their lead (I did!).
We were introduced to the Barbican staff and given a Health and Safety briefing after which the rest of the day was taken up rehearsing. This was a bit of an odd hybrid. The professionals have, by now, many weeks of experience behind them so for them it was a cue to cue tech (passing over sections of dialogue when nothing technical is happening). However, when it was our scenes or the scenes involving the children (today from Eastbury) these were run in full – and sometimes rerun – and sometimes rerun again. Adjustments were often minute but always telling. The process took almost the whole day with the only diversion being a press call around midday. This involved running a couple of scenes with Ayesha so the press photographers could get some shots (as in photos – we weren’t that bad!)
Once the rehearsal was over the anticipation of the first night began to sink in. There were company vocal and physical warm ups to attend and then presents to exchange. One of the most touching parts of this was the relay gift from our buddies down in Cornwall – some proper Cornish fairings (look it up) and the actual fairy baton – ours for the week. For my own gifts I had struck lucky. A random internet search several months ago for “Rude Mechanicals” had turned up an Australian wine collective who produced a frizzante – couldn’t have been more perfect if it tried!
Almost before we knew it the first calls of the evening were being given and it was time to really concentrate on the job in hand. The BBC was still filming for the “Best Bottoms” documentary and followed the process of us getting ourselves ready. And then came the big moment – “Beginners to the stage”. Our first scene is about 20 minutes in but I wanted to be near the action so headed down to the stage. This involved quite a few stairs as our dressing room is four floors above the backstage pass. I took everything I would need with me as I didn’t fancy trooping up and down. There is a lift but we’re all banned from using it for an hour and a half before performance just in case it breaks down with us in it!
The wings/backstage space at the Barbican is huge so plenty of room for some anxious pacing – except that wasn’t the case. I felt surprisingly serene about the whole thing and was confident we could do a decent job. Laura (Helena) went into the final speech of Scene1, the green light lit up and suddenly we were on. I must admit to a nervous flutter about three speeches in; that’s about par for the course so it’s just (JUST!) a matter of gripping the baton a little more firmly until the moment passes. The next two and a bit hours were just the most thrilling thing you can imagine. Lines flowed with ease, movement came naturally – the whole thing just barrelled along with its own momentum and the audience seemed to be loving it. No, actually they WERE loving it – the warmth coming back was palpable. The most magical part of all was Pyramus and Thisbe. Strange, all your life you try to avoid ham acting and then suddenly that’s what you’re called upon to do and everyone gives you a huge thumbs up for it.
And so to the curtain call – another huge wave of emotion crashed over us as the applause and cheering just went on and on. And when I found out later that one of those people was Sir Ian McKelllen oh my oh my oh my! And the children – they looked just so thrilled with the hugest grins. And the oh so generous professionals happy to let us have our moment – they truly are the best of people and they all deserves to be huge stars in the acting firmament. And the BBC cameras capturing it all. And the tears in Erica and Kim’s eyes when they came backstage afterwards and said the most moving things. And David – just like a proud parent. And Maria and Adam and Tom and Peta and Al – the best damn bunch of Mechanicals/mates in the whole land. And the generous and supportive comments afterwards at the Barbican hosted reception from friends, colleagues and even complete strangers….And I’m filling up – have to stop! Sorry!
This week the production is at the Barbican in London– click on the image below to reveal full details.
Evenings at 7.30 Tuesday 17th – Saturday 21st May
Matinées at 1.00 Thursday May 19th & Saturday May 21st
Walking through the stage door of The Barbican theatre at 10.30 am and signing in for the day is the first action of a desperate man – desperate to get things right that is. The RSC have devoted so much time and support to this project and it has been going so well so far that none of us want to go down in infamy as the one who “mucked up”. So it’s a deep breath and then down into the bowels of the Barbican to the rehearsal room. We’re in the rehearsal room because up above us the stage is being fitted up ready for the performances to start the following day.
It’s just the Tower Dreamteam in the morning with Erica and Kim. Voice guru Michael is feeling unwell and we hope he can return to the fold really soon; I have a feeling I may be needing his talents ere long. We start, naturally enough, with our opening scene which I could by now recite in my sleep – and possibly do/will. We skip past the second scene as this requires Lucy (Puck) who won’t arrive until later and then move into the short transition scene in Act IV. The work is intense but still highly enjoyable, especially when we discover yet more new things hidden away in the text. A first go at Pyramus and Thisbe comes before a visit to the stage to see the set going up. There are boxes of materials everywhere; it looks like chaos but I’m certain that it is far from it. The visit serves as a very timely reminder of the sheer scale in which we will be working. I actually found sitting in the auditorium and looking back at the stage even more daunting as we contemplated what lay ahead. Meanwhile all of the morning’s events were being filmed by the BBC documentary team and a brief interview session with them finished the morning.
There was actually little time for lunch (well not for me at least) but some fruit on the terrace and some fresh air was very welcome; the Barbican backstage can be an airless place with few windows on the outside world. I had to return below ground fairly swiftly to work with Ayesha on our scenes – cue happy moments of reunion both with her and the other adult fairies. Ayesha as ever kept me on my toes with fresh approaches and new ideas and I was reminded that Bottom has a whole other side to his character (other than the rather loud blustering which passes for acting the rest of the time).
Next it was time for the schoolchildren’s session; the Beam and Eastbury pupils were intelligent and alert and Kim in particular worked her socks off to get through so much in a short space of time. It was great to see all the enthusiastic, eager faces again and it is clear that they and their teachers have been doing a lot of work on their scenes. Finally we all got to do the Bergomask several times before the youngsters and their chaperones headed off home and we took a meal break. There’s a nice canteen (called the Green Room) for the artists and the Barbican staff which we are being allowed to use. Then there was just time to pay a visit to our allocated dressing rooms – the male contingent of the Tower team are all together in one space while Maria is sharing with Lucy. The dressing rooms are much swisher than many I have seen – individual stations, organised and spacious clothes rails and shoe storage, lockers for ordinary clothes, a shower, a sofa and even our own fridge – very snazzy. The room comes complete with our very own Jen– our dresser who helps us to sort everything out and keep things in good order. It’s all a far cry from the often cramped muddle of am dram world.
The evening session was spent working on the rehearsal in the forest scene; Lucy joined us for this and added some inventive business with Puck’s mischief making based on what we were doing. We also did the second half of Pyramus and Thisbe. Tiredness was definitely setting in by now and I was having to play in a rather lower key than earlier. The directors were happy to allow this as they knew that when it came to actual performance the adrenaline would kick in and Doctor Theatre would work his magic. A last glance to see how the set was coming along (well, since you ask) and it was off home to get some rest so we could do it all again soon. Tomorrow is even longer and more intense but also contains THE big moment. Crikey!
This week the production is at the Barbican in London– click on the image below to reveal full details.
Evenings at 7.30 Tuesday 17th – Saturday 21st May
Matinées at 1.00 Thursday May 19th & Saturday May 21st
It’s been a long wait for us at Tower to pick up the baton (and there literally is a small fairy baton being passed from group to group) on A Midsummer Night’s Dream: A Play For The Nation. However we can console ourselves that the high point is still yet to come and that anticipation surely sweetens the reward (that’s what we’re telling ourselves anyway). When I was recently looking into the London Blitz for the blog post on our venue, the Barbican, I was reminded of the period that preceded the firestorm as the “phoney war”. I guess the waiting is a bit like that- a sense of anticipation building and a desire to get things moving. Either that or it reminds me of revising heavily for an exam and wanting to get in the exam room before forgetting it all.
During this period of relative calm, however, we have kept ourselves up to speed by having the odd rehearsal, using social media to follow the exploits of other groups, reading invariably laudatory reviews online and paying visits to our nearest neighbours. Following my trip to Canterbury a couple of weeks ago, Adam (Flute) and Al (Snout) took themselves off to Norwich’s Theatre Royal; the production featured local group The Common Lot. Over to roving reporter Adam Moulder:
It was with boundless enthusiasm that Al and I took the train to the fine city of Norwich for a taste of the next chapter of the RSC’s tour. I was particularly over excited as I was returning to my university city and this would be my first viewing of the production in all its glory, having missed the Tower teams jaunt to Stratford Upon A. After a quick reminisce around the city, a beer and some lovely food, we took our seats for the show.
Before it had even begun two fair ladies to our right jokingly asked if we were going to be rowdy. We got to talking and eventually explained that they were sat next to a Flute and a Snout from London supporting our fellow players and gathering research. Turns out one of the ladies was due to be on a date with her husband but, not being able to find a babysitter, had come with a good friend instead. Shakespeare, a play for the nation, except babysitting husbands!
But to business; the music started and the next couple of hours were truly magical. For me the additions of costume, full music, proscenium arch staging and schoolchildren were all new and enhanced the production to a beautiful extent. It was also wonderful to see all the mechanicals scenes performed by our ‘Common Lot’ colleagues with such skill, comedy and Norfolk touches! The words ‘here’ and ‘hear’ in a thick Norwich accent surprisingly jumped out!
Owen, Norfolk’s best Bottom, was superb and his audience acknowledged this. We were there on the Thursday evening which meant a Q&A followed between the actors and audience, and we could tell the Norwich audience had enjoyed the RSC production immensely but above all were so proud of their local ‘amateurs’.
It was also delightful to see the professional cast and crew in the pub afterwards (I hadn’t seen them for over two months) and be welcomed into the touring gang with open arms. But last word must go to the Norwich mechanicals, who, as well being superb on stage, were so friendly, humble and encouraging as we shared a few ciders long into the night. There’s no doubt that my nerves have ratcheted up a notch as our performance week creeps on apace but I learnt so much from the production at the Theatre Royal that my excitement and desire to work hard in our final rehearsals in the hope of producing a similarly entertaining result have also increased no end. “We stand like greyhounds in the slips, straining upon the start. The game’s afoot: Follow your spirit, and… charge.”
Thanks Adam. As I found in Canterbury the bar has been set high indeed. Meanwhile what have I been filling my time with? Taking a tip from some of my colleagues in other groups I thought it was high time I went and observed some real examples of equus africanus asinus so it was off to a local branch of the rescue centre Redwings situated at the Ada Cole stables in Epping. I actually have a horse adoption certificate there and have done for years. It started out as a gift while playing Albert the carthorse in Alan Bennett’s version
of The Wind In The Willows – yes, I do have previous form as a member of the equus genus. This was some years ago (thanks, Diane, if you’re reading this) and I’ve kept it up ever since and generally visit a couple of times a year. Though there are lots of animals to interact with I spent most of my time this time round observing their four donkeys, one of whom, appropriately, was a real Cockney charmer called Del Boy. Donkeys seem both mournful and sprightly at the same time, have deep soulful eyes and some endearing little habits which just might find their way into the final performance. Fortunately they were just being brushed and fed at the time of the visit and as fairy massages and food play a large part in one of the Dream scenes what I was able to observe will be really useful.
I also spent a couple of useful hours recently at the Shakespeare In Ten Acts exhibition at the British Library. Lots of books and manuscripts to see and even an example of WS’s own handwriting in a scene from an unproduced play about Thomas More (Ian McKellan performed the speech at the Stratford Shakespeare Live celebrations recently). Plenty of other good stuff too about the contexts in which various plays have been performed across
the last four centuries. Dreamwise there was a recreation of the white box set from the celebrated Peter Brook version of the 1970s. This exhibit also had photos, costumes and even props from the production. As usual with any exhibition there was simply too much to take in but if you’re a Bardophile and in the Kings Cross area I can thoroughly recommend this (it’s on until September)
One of the perks of working with the RSC has been being invited to events at the BBC. Having already attended their Shakespeare season launch and (very briefly) being seen in The One Show we were asked to a special preview screening of their version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream shortly to be shown on prime time television; and I stress it is a version. No spoilers but the text has been cut and runs at just 90 minutes. It also takes some interesting and surprising liberties – I was particularly intrigued by the concept underpinning the character of Hippolyta – and the whole has the unmistakeable whiff of magic sprinkled on it by creative genius Russell T Davies.
The screening was followed by a Q & A with Maxine Peake (Titania), John Hannah (Theseus), Paapa Essiedu (Demetrius) and Mr Davies himself. After that it was time to mingle and star spot – Elaine Paige, Richard Wilson, Esther Rantzen and Alan Yentob to mention a few. I had an interesting chat with Russell T Davies about the RSC project (he called it “a very exciting idea”) and he fondly recalled working with our Titania, Ayesha, in a Doctor Who episode Planet of the Ood. Apparently he’s had plans to put together a film of the Shakespeare play for many years now – it will be interesting to see how it goes down when it is shown publically.
The last event I wanted to mention is one in which I didn’t even participate but demonstrates the generosity with which the RSC have gone about this project. By way of a thank you to all the original companies which auditioned, the RSC announced their intention to run a Saturday morning workshop for them. Knowing it would be a popular event the immediate Dreamteam decided to take a back seat and let others get stuck in. So many thanks to participant and second roving reporter Ruth Sullivan for the following insight: We had a super time on Saturday with voice and movement coaches Cathleen and Sinead. Several London-based amateur groups met up in the Green Room of the Barbican before being split into two groups and whisked away for the first session. As Tower made up the majority of the participants, we were in our own group with a whole mixture of Tower members old and new.
Lots of stretching, breathing and yeehaa-ing was followed by a look at a scene between Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, going round the room saying a phrase each or even just a word, emphasising the words we thought were most important. Then a hugely instructive demonstration of Lady Macbeth’s speech with ‘interruptions’ from Macbeth – well done to participant Penelope.
We were disappointed not to spend more time looking at text but after a quick coffee break it was time for a movement session, spending a lot of time walking round the room in straight lines and curves, with broad or focussed perspectives, muttering lines to ourselves and observing how our intentions changed depending on how we walked. Fascinating to see how such a simple thing as walking in a particular way can change the way you speak. The physical can so often inform the verbal.
The session came to a close with a look at how the dynamics of a scene – one person walking to a chair, one person following walking to a window – can be affected by walking in a combination of curves and lines. Again, so simple and yet so effective. Thank you to the RSC for letting us have an insight into their world and teaching us lots of useful techniques in the process. They assured us they’ll be continuing their relationship with the amateur world so watch this space!
Thanks Ruth; sounds similar to some of the stuff we got to do. I can only say that if they had as much fun and learned as much as we have done over the last year then they will have been very fortunate indeed.
So that’s everything up to date and tidied away ready for the final big push which begins imminently. It is with not a little trepidation that we look forward to the next couple of weeks but as the preparation has been long and thorough we can do so with a degree of confidence ( he said with fingers crossed while touching a piece of wood and clutching a lucky piece of heather). Look out for even more regular updates on the blog in the big week next week as you continue to share this wonderful experience with us. As Adam said above…”Charge!”
This week the production is at the Hall for Cornwall in Truro– click on the image below to reveal full details.
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.