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.
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.
How can you sum up an experience like this? Although it was my intention to try and do so in this post I really don’t think I can at the moment, especially as I’ve been struggling with it for over 36 hours and have had to publish a stopgap post in between. I think there needs to be a little distance in place first in order to fully appreciate the sheer scale of what we have been involved with and what we have achieved. Best, perhaps, to stick to an account of our last day and come back to an overview later. I say this simply so that you don’t regard what follows as a somewhat workmanlike (Mechanical!) narrative but I think if I take any other tack it will be a long while before this piece gets written. In reality, if this were being composed with pen/quill and ink the latter would be rather blotchy and probably running down the page by now. So … to the narrative
In theory we had a quiet time in store for us on our last day on A Midsummer Night’s Dream: A Play For The Nation. There were no more rehearsals and it was only necessary to turn up at the theatre mid afternoon, get some notes and give our final performance. That was the theory. In reality the nervous energy and adrenaline were still in the ascendant and relaxing with the paper or a good book just wasn’t going to happen. I felt absolutely
ravenous so after a very hearty breakfast I tried to focus by settling down to write the previous day’s blog post and started to organise some of the many (many many) photos we have acquired. Adam and I were also attempting another Twitter takeover as we had at the Barbican – this time as a Pyramus and Thisbe double act (see here). And if that wasn’t enough to be going on with the Tower Dreamteam also took the opportunity to get some important videoing done (more of this in a later post).
And then a very nice interlude. Adam and I had been invited by the RSC’s Education Department to join a small group taking part in a Q and A session about the production at King Edward VI School; this is sometimes referred to as “Shakespeare’s School” as it is almost certain that he attended there. Lucy (Puck), Mercy (Hermia) and Sophie (AD) also came along. The boys from Year 7 had seen the play the previous week and had obviously given a lot of thought to their questions.
The old part of the school
The bit we were in
They wanted to know how the project worked, what our favourite moments were, were there any other Shakespearean parts that we would like to play (I said Falstaff if there are any casting directors reading this), how we learned lines and how we had all got into acting. There was a good deal of laughter as we regaled the boys with anecdotes of our time with the RSC though I’m not sure Adam should have “treated” them to a picture of me in my Pyramus “onesie”. That must have broken some law or other…or at the very least a school rule. The boys are, apparently, working on their own production of the play so hopefully what we had to tell them will be of practical use. I wonder if the youngsters are really aware of just how lucky they are to have the RSC literally just down the road from their school and what a wonderful resource they have at their disposal.
Next it was time for our final set of notes with AD Kim – as ever so kind, so thoughtful, so encouraging. It’s fascinating that even at this (very) late stage there was a striving for absolute perfection, a desire to enhance the audience experience (and our own) just that little bit more. I was pleased to have already spotted a number of the points Kim raised about my own performance and resolved to put them into practice that very evening – a distinct case of now or never.
This session finished with a special little presentation. I think we were all conscious as a group that there we were every night up on stage, getting all the plaudits and listening to the thunderous applause and that really there should have been a seventh member of the Tower team up there with us. David, our director, did such a massively important job in getting us organised and into the project in the first place. It can’t have been easy spending eighteen months of your life “herding cats” (it has to be said that we were, sometimes, a somewhat unruly bunch) and we didn’t want the moment to pass without some recognition. So we’d organised a framed photo collage of ourselves to remind David of what a special thing he had done for all of us, for the Tower company and for the am dram world in general. He’s a project manager by profession and I hope he will look back on this experience as one of his greatest achievements – he certainly should do so.
After a short supper break in the theatre’s Green Room café (sorry folks, only available to members of the RSC workforce) it was on to our final warm up sessions. The pro cast had held a farewell party the previous evening and there were plenty of ribald references to a “paper plate awards ceremony” which had formed part of proceedings. Then it was time for another piece of RSC tradition to be fulfilled. The pass at the back of the stage (the walkway from one side of the stage to the other) looks like a massive wall of graffiti but when you look more closely it contains the signatures of all the actors who have appeared at the theatre. In common with colleagues in all the other amateur groups we were invited to leave our monikers, so there we are enshrined for eternity or until they revamp the theatre again, whichever comes first.
And so to the final performance. Horrible word “final” isn’t it? It’s so…well….final, really. But let’s not dwell on the down side. The performance had such drive and energy that it would be quite wrong to emphasise any negatives. There were, thankfully, no wardrobe malfunctions or side trips to The Swan to distract me as on the previous evening and I tried to bear in mind Erica and Michael Corbidge’s injunctions to savour the moment and “juice” the words.
As I’ve said several times now everything builds to Pyramus and Thisbe and this time round it was really something special. The words came out crisply, the moves were full of dynamic energy and the timing just seemed to hit the sweet spot that’s important for a great comedy moment. The “kiss” through the wall was an absolute riot – if only someone could capture that feeling of unrestrained joy and bottle it they would make a fortune. Minutes later as I lay “dead” on stage hearing Thisbe’s moving rendition of the eulogy over Pyramus’s body I could feel myself welling up which, of course, wouldn’t do at all. To distract myself I ran through my last line and then stood to deliver it with as much force as I could muster. Then into the dance (fantastic), the group hug (this one was for real – I distinctly heard Maria say “We did it!”) and a race backstage to prepare for the curtain call. This capped everything that had gone before and …..well, as Bottom says when emotions get the better of his thought processes – “No more words!”
As on the previous night I can’t really recall much about after the show. There seemed to be a never ending procession of positive comments, backslapping and smiling faces. A huge cheer erupted as I came through the stage door from all the parents waiting to pick up the children. I recall meeting and chatting with some of the incoming Cardiff team though think I just kept repeating how wonderful it all was. I didn’t know whether I was hot or cold, aching or physically alert, wide awake or fast asleep and dreaming. However amongst the melee one last moment of pride and pleasure occurred which is worthy of record. In the Dirty Duck, in the Snug (naturally), was a team photo of us hanging by the fireplace. The other amateur teams have been featuring there throughout the month’s run but for a brief moment it was our turn on this wall of fame just below a picture of a young Hugh Bonneville and just along from the photo of Laurence Olivier. Magic!
Well…that vote was a bit of an eye-opener wasn’t it? No not THAT vote – I’m referring to the poll launched on a previous post which raised the thorny question of when, exactly, Midsummer falls. Well the people (some people) have spoken and after a close run thing I am happy to announce that the people are…undecided. The various dates which were suggested polled roughly equal numbers. Slightly ahead (and therefore, of course, the democratic winner so no whinging, whining or signing ‘please can we have a rerun’ petitions) was the delightfully vague category of “other”. One might almost think that it wasn’t of enough importance to people. It’s not as though there was anything else of significance going on last week, was there? The best we can say then, is that Midsummer is “around this time of year” (probably) so let’s just call last week Midsummer Week and that keeps most voters happy. Thus there will be no need to invoke Fairy Article 50 and we can all get on with our lives.
So what DID happen during the week most closely connected to A Midsummer Night’s Dream: A Play For The Nation? Quite a lot as it turns out – in fact there’s so much to say that I’ve decided to split this post into two – especially as I have another of my wonderful roving reporters to help me out. This time it’s the turn of Mr Al Freeman who is playing Snout the tinker (who in turn plays Wall in Pyramus and Thisbe). So, over to you Wall – sorry, Al!
Photo by Topher McGrillis RSC I went up to Stratford on Tuesday 21st June to see the People’s Theatre from Newcastle take their turn in the Dream encore performances. Back in 1994, I was in Newcastle training to be a teacher, and had done a couple of shows with them. Looking back, I don’t now know how I managed to get away from the relentless lesson planning and assignments in order to have done this, nor how I managed to be in the World Headquarters club drinking Broon Ale on a regular basis. Priorities, I suppose!
I had previously contacted the company to see if any of the people I knew from 1994 were in the Dream cast, and got a reply from Chris Heckels (their Director) saying that she was my only link to that time. Chris had played the Headmistress in ‘The Happiest Days of Our Lives’ (John Dighton), in which I had played an angry parent. I thought that the 21st was the Summer Solstice and therefore a special night for A Midsummer Night’s Dream. In fact, I was wrong – it was the previous night, Monday 20th, but never mind, eh? (See, I told you it needed sorting out – Ed.)
I thought I was going to be late for the start of the performance when I found at Leamington Spa that the vital Stratford connection had been cancelled. (Why the railway companies can’t organise faster, more frequent and more direct trains to Stratford remains a mystery to me). But much to my surprise, taxis were organised for rail passengers with very little delay, and with the result that I arrived in Stratford earlier than expected, even being dropped off close to my B & B. Having checked in, I was straight off down to the theatre in time for the performance. Once again a good time was had by all onstage.
In the Dirty Duck afterwards, Lucy was looking well after another great performance as Puck. Also in attendance were several of the pros and AD Kim. I met up with Chris Heckels; neither of us remembered much about 1994, or each other for that matter (must have been the Broon Ale). Snouts from The Bear Pit (David), the Castle Players (Ben), the People’s Theatre (Stuart) and myself had our photo taken together in the Snug Bar (!) by Lucy. That’s four Walls, and that makes a Room. Behind us was the People’s Theatre photo on the wall next to the fireplace, which was to be replaced by the next company’s photo the next night. A nice touch that, as ephemeral as the theatre itself ….‘These our actors as I foretold you…’
Thanks Al and he’ll be back in the next post to tell us about the second part of his big Stratford week.
I didn’t have to travel quite so far afield for my own little Midsummer adventure but it was to a slightly more unusual venue; the Imperial War museum to be precise. To explain – way back last autumn, while all the project’s preliminaries were still going on, I took a ten week online course with FutureLearn entitled Shakespeare and his World. Last week I was asked to go and give a short talk about the course and how it fed into the Dream project and this took place in the aforementioned museum. Attendees (about 100 in all) were potential future funders and developers of further online courses and came from universities from the UK and as far afield as Australia and the USA. Thus it was a really good opportunity to flag up the RSC project to a solidly academic audience. There was video testimony from course takers overseas and a very articulate 17 year old student and his teacher explained how he was supplementing his Sixth Form study with a range of short courses from the FutureLearn portfolio.
Then it was my turn. I started by giving the audience a blast of Bottom’s “Dream” monologue – partly to prove to myself I could still remember it.
I then outlined the context of the RSC project and how workshops and tasks had got us ready for the rehearsals, how the FutureLearn course gave a structured dimension to the background research which I had carried out and how the content had fed into a better understanding of Shakespeare’s play. A (fuller) account of taking the course can be found here.
It was quite an honour to be asked to address such an eminent body of educationists and as they politely laughed in all the right places and nodded enthusiastically, I felt it had gone down well. In the coffee break which followed I found myself the centre of much questioning and, inevitably, slightly ribald comments about my Bottom (is there one variation left that I haven’t heard over the last year?) As the delegates returned to their conference I was whisked away to answer some questions on camera for a FutureLearn website video.
I finished my day there with a look around the museum’s “Family at War” exhibition. A bit late for further research I suppose but, as the production is set immediately after World War 2 it did give me a chance to brush up on the sort of experiences the Mechanicals might have recently been through. As I left I reflected that, but for the Dream project, here was yet another opportunity which would not have come my way. I’ve already mentioned how I may fill the gap left by #Dream2016 with further academic study and FutureLearn is certainly an option I shall be looking into.
So that’s the first part of a big week that was significant in so many ways – though not all of it directly connected to the project. To mark the anniversary of the launch (at Midsummer 2015) a video has been released which I hope you’ll enjoy. (Warning – it does get a bit emotional at one point!)
See you shortly for Midsummer @ Midsummer (Part The Second)
The production is now back in Stratford upon Avon. Click on the image below for details
If the various reviews which have emerged as A Midsummer Night’s Dream: A Play For The Nation has toured the country are to be believed (and I think they should) the production has been a resounding hit. National and local critics, online bloggers and contributors to discussion boards and social media have been almost universally positive in their praise for the show (a digest of comments about Tower Theatre’s contribution can be found here). Ticket sales have also been strong suggesting a high level of satisfaction amongst the theatre going population. However, a number of blogs/articles have raised some question marks about the project and whether amateurs should or shouldn’t encroach on traditionally professional territory. As the final month of performances is now taking place this would seem to be an appropriate moment to address this point and the question of whether the experiment was a success and should ever be repeated.
The highest profile commentator has probably been Michael Billington, a critic for whom I have the greatest respect. In his regular blog in The Guardian (and based on his viewing of the production in London) he gave the amateur cast a very positive review but raised the question of whether the project is or should be repeatable. He reaches the conclusion that it should remain as a one off:
If I argue that amateur and pro should generally be kept separate, it is because I respect the craft of both. Professional acting, as we all know, is a precarious business with a high unemployment rate… The RSC Midsummer Night’s Dream is a special case in which an honourable attempt has been made to create “a play for the nation”. It should be enjoyed as a one-off, but not become a template for future occasions. In hard times, we need to protect the status of the dedicated professional.
I have to say I find this argument a little disingenuous. The logical conclusion would be that in any given field only those specifically trained and dedicated to a professional standard should attempt anything. Really? By extension that would mean any actor struggling to find work should not accept a position as a part time tutor or waiter or call centre operator, etc because a) they’ve probably not trained for it and b) they certainly won’t be as dedicated as they would be to acting; that would clearly be both untenable and ridiculous. And who is to say that an amateur cannot make just as good a job of something as the “dedicated professional”? If I want a celebration cake and I know and can trust a good amateur baker, why would I necessarily go to a professional?
A similar argument has also been raised in a piece in The Stage in which anonymised professionals (not quite sure why they need to be so) were asked their opinion on mixing the worlds of pro and am. Would you let an amateur plumber mend your sink?muses “Albert”; well, yes I might very well given that the context and circumstances were conducive. It is also not the case that allowing an amateur actor to appear on the professional stage is going to threaten someone’s health, safety, life span or possessions and so comparing them to (for instance) plumbers, dentists or lawyers is not really helpful. To be fair some of Albert’s fellow professionals take a rather broader view:
I think it’s great to use community and amateur casts. Not threatening at all… I have massive respect for them and for the role theatre can play in the community. (“Jenny”)
Totally inspires me. I have worked on a few community-based projects and it definitely encourages authenticity and originality, especially in new work.(“Tina”)
However, as these are Jenny and Tina’s only reported remarks in the article their positive slant is somewhat overbalanced and a rather more pessimistic view prevails. There is particular opprobrium reserved for producers who take this route to economise:
You Me Bum Bum Train and Secret Cinema – both dubious in the extreme as to their using actors and not paying proper rates. Or even anything. (“Albert”)
The thing is, A Play For The Nation was anything but a rentacrowd or a gimmick led approach. No Andrew Lloyd Weber talent show casting here! (Interesting that Gary Barlow has just announced a resurgence of the format for finding a new Fake (sorry, Take) That) From the get go, the amateurs involved were respected and treated as an integral part of the whole RSC production, not some media generating bolt on. Lyn Gardner in another, earlier, Guardian blog summed up this position:
Without the involvement of non-professional actors, the RSC’s version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream simply wouldn’t have happened. Community involvement was at the very heart of the project. It’s a very different case from a theatre simply deciding that it will use amateur actors because they can save money on the wages bill.
Agreed. And I think there are other subtler ways of cutting down on the bills. I have absolutely no idea what the budget for A Play For The Nation has been – I can only imagine. Despite that I have seen little by way of cheese paring. We have had phenomenal coaching from the likes of Michael Corbidge and Sian Williams, directing from the Deputy Head of the RSC and her talented team, a full and generous complement of highly skilled backstage and organisational staff and unbounded support from the professionals in the cast. Neither have their numbers been skimped on as a result of using amateurs. There are 26 adult performers in each show (18 professionals plus the 6 amateur Mechanicals). Interestingly there are only 14 all told in the current Globe production and a mere 7 in the production at Southwark Playhouse (see here) – indeed in the latter case the paucity of performers is the key selling point of the show. Aside from this the RSC has enhanced prospects for workers in the regions through touring the show to a number of locations. Far from taking away professional earning potential I don’t think that it’s going too far to say that much work has been provided through this particular project.
Christopher Haydon, artistic director of the Gate Theatre, in a blog piece rebuffing some of Michael Billington’s arguments goes further. He contends that rather than the project undermining the work of those fully paid members of the company, it acted as a clear demonstration of how great art does not have any boundaries – a seasoned pro, or a teacher from Hackney, can both find pathos, humanity and truth in the words they are speaking.
He then goes on to quote our very own Puck – Lucy Ellinson – who generously says: I’ve learnt a lot from my amateur colleagues (the collaboration has been) “an important reaffirmation for me that when we tour the country with our work we’re not simply offering the local community something – we are making each and every performance with them.
Thanks for the vote of confidence, Lucy, and I think I can confidently say that, reciprocally, we have learned a phenomenal amount of stagecraft from our wonderful pros and that this will undoubtedly inspire us in our ongoing work within our local communities.
Indeed a learning experience is certainly what it has been right from day one. Susan Elkin, The Stage’s Education and Training Editor has stated:
The whole concept is one of the most inspired celebratory training initiatives I’ve ever encountered – as well as producing a glitteringly good evening’s theatre.
In her article she roundly calls on the powers that be to deliver a repeat of the project every year; well I’m game!
So was it worth doing? An unqualified yes. It has touched the lives of so many people amateur and professional, young and not so young, actors and audience alike that I think it will be fondly remembered as a trail blazer for many years to come. Should it be repeated? If the end results are going to be so joyous, life enhancing and affirmative it would be criminal not to do so. I’ll leave the final summation to Erica Whyman:
It is a project on an almost unimaginable scale, but it is also a very simple idea: to make a new production of a great play in partnership with good colleagues. If it works it will strengthen those bonds and make visible a truly national passion for making theatre.
It most certainly did, Erica, and it most certainly has!
The production is now back in Stratford upon Avon. Click on the image below for details
First an apology; what with one thing and another, I’ve got a bit behind with this week’s post. (See what I did there?… Bottom! Behind! Oh, never mind!) And so I’m indebted to two of my fellow Mechanicals (Trevor and Adam) for providing me with the “meat” of this particular outing.
Last week A Midsummer Night’s Dream: A Play For The Nation crossed the water to Belfast. I still find the logistics of the whole enterprise mind boggling and to have played successfully in so many venues with an ever changing cast means that the agenda underlined by the production’s subtitle has been well and truly met. Congratulations, once again, to any and all of the people involved in making it happen not just once but 103 times – so far. As you will have already worked out that means the production’s century has now been achieved. Last Thursday evening’s show was, indeed, the 100th and although I wasn’t there I know a man who was. Thanks to my colleague and fellow Bottom, Trevor Gill of the Belvoir Players for the following:
On Thursday 2nd June the Grand Opera House Belfast had the great honour of hosting the 100th performance of Dream 2016. Our fabulous Stage Manager Jenny Grand made a special tannoy announcement just before curtain up. A fitting standing ovation that night – the Belfast audience in full roar! Highlight was the wonderful Puck (Lucy Ellison) who with the help of some white paper, sellotape and ribbon magically turned her top hat into a pint of Guinness.
Thanks Trevor and I’m betting that one or two glasses of the real thing were raised in celebration later that evening.
And so it was that just three performances later, the end of the UK tour was reached with Belfast again the venue for another special night. At one time I had hoped to be there to witness proceedings at first hand but, alas, this was not to be. However, being younger than the rest of us old Tower fogies, Adam did make the trip and has kindly penned the following to give us all a flavour of that last night across the Irish Sea: A hire car, a wedding, three trains, a flight and two buses. That’s how I got from London on Friday morning to Belfast on Saturday afternoon ready for the penultimate instalment on the nationwide tour of the production. A month in Stratford Upon Avon is all that remains after Belfast so there was very much a ‘breaking up for half term’ feeling amongst the Dream 2016 gang. Converging from across the country were a Bottom and Quince from Glasgow, a Bottom from Bradford and almost the entire rude mechanicals from Norwich, all intent on joining up with the Belvoir Players and the professional RSC troupe to celebrate the (first)last night.
And so to the play and the fantastic Belfast actors and accents on display. Having seen three versions (including ours) in performance now, and a whole host of others in rehearsal, there is no doubt that each of the mechanicals’ takes are unique with vastly different interpretations but all thoroughly interesting to watch. And in every town the local audiences shriek with delight at their native lads and ladies in action. I must make special mention of my fellow Flute, Chris Curry, who was as truthful a Thisbe as they come.
As for the professional actors, it was a pleasure to see them again. It had only been two weeks since the curtain came down on our last show in London, and despite it feeling longer than that to me, it was like meeting up with old friends instantly. And testament to their professionalism, their 103rd performance included energy, attack and a freshness that is no mean feat to muster especially considering how tired they all must be. Lucy Ellinson, our wonderful Puck, for example, appears to have learned from each and every show and each and every audience, resulting in a performance that gets better and better every time it is let loose on the stage. After rapturous applause it was on to the ‘half term’ party to celebrate what had been an excellently well received tour of immense quality. Credit to Trevor Gill, Belfast’s finest Bottom, for organising a great shindig with much dancing, drinking and merriment. The only shame was that licensing laws in Belfast meant the lights came up and the music stopped far too early for anyone’s liking, but that failed to dampen a wonderful evening. No-one can deny… she is indeed handsome, she is indeed pretty, she is the Dream in Belfast City.
Many thanks for that account Adam and I hope it wasn’t quite so convoulted getting back to London again.
And so, that was the tour that was. Working with just about the THE most preeminent classical theatre company in the world, dozens of amateur actors/Mechanicals and hundreds of schoolchildren/fairies have had the honour of performing in front of thousands of playgoers. That, as I am sure you are aware, though, is not quite the end. This week the production is on a well-deserved sabbatical but very soon the professional cast will reconvene in Stratford upon Avon for a further month of shows. During this time each of the 14 amateur companies (plus yet more local schoolchildren) have been invited to the RSC home to take it in turns to perform once again on the stage of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre. It just keeps getting better doesn’t it? The plaudits the show has received as it has travelled the country have ensured that ticket sales in Stratford are already extremely healthy so it looks like we’re all in for another great time once it gets to each of our turns. For a schedule of these upcoming performances please click here.
Following a really memorable week at the Barbican, our Stratford turn comes in the very last week of all. While this will inevitably be tinged with sadness we really can’t wait to get cracking again. Wish us luck and hopefully see you in July!
The production is on a week’s break and recommences on 15th June in Stratford upon Avon. Click on the image below for the full schedule
The thing about “show week” is that everything goes out of the window – eating habits, sleeping patterns, household chores….work! If that has proved true in the past then it is doubly so with A Midsummer Night’s Dream: A Play For The Nation. The work aspect is relatively easily dealt with – we knew we’d be doing this for over a year and that taking holiday would be essential. The household chores can be put into suspended animation for a week. But the eating and the sleeping? They are pretty vital for keeping on top of the game and yet mine seem to have gone to pot. Ah well – you have to suffer for your art.
So it was that Thursday morning dawned (literally) very early. At least this gave me an opportunity to answer some of the well-wishing messages which had been flooding in over the earlier part of the week. After another quick natter with Bradford Barry (see yesterday) he took himself off for a meet up with Lucy before travelling home. A thoroughly delightful and undemanding house guest – see you in Stratford, Barry. Then it was off to the theatre. Within moments of arriving two more “firsts” for me. First time being asked for an autograph from an audience member who had seen the show the previous night and now had picked up a ticket for another look on the following day (thanks glutton for punishment) and first time for flowers at the stage door (thanks family)
It was a double fun day on Thursday with two performances to give. This meant another relatively early call as the matinee start time was at 1.00. The afternoon performance had a number of school parties in and we had been warned to be on our toes. All I can say is that the children in the audience were impeccably behaved – a credit to their schools and teachers and fully immersed in what was going on. They loved Pyramus and Thisbe – plenty of visual humour there, of course and one particular move I made nearly brought the house down.
In the post show (or pre show – depending how you look at it) lull I had an interview with Holly Williams of The Independent. The questions were pretty much par for the course and I enjoyed talking about the project. At the same time I was being a little wary of preserving my voice. We have actually had little by way of press coverage/reviews on the London leg. The national press (quite rightly) covered the opening in Stratford some weeks ago and local papers as such, have not continued in the capital as they have in other areas of the country. There was a piece in Time Out but this somewhat oddly took the view that the project wasn’t a success because the amateurs were too good – go figure! Other than this there have been a small handful of online blog reviews but nothing of any great significance.
The evening performance soon came round and this one really seemed to fly. Sometimes the rapport between audience and actors is so instant that a real bond is formed; everyone is there to have a damn good time and nothing is going to stop them. Al took a serious tumble in the chase sequence but seems not to have done any permanent damage and I got a bit too close to Maria’s eye when I connected with her cheek while I was wrestling the sword from Adam but otherwise it was fun all the way. I felt really comfortable with the Titania scenes – Ayesha boosted my confidence no end by making some very complimentary remarks just before we went on. And as for Pyramus and Thisbe –I think a couple of minutes must have got added on to the running time because of the howls of laughter; I nearly found myself corpsing (unintentionally breaking character by laughing) myself at one point and had to employ the well-worn “biting the inside of the cheeks” methodology to prevent this. What an absolute joy to hear about 1,000 people so enjoying themselves. The curtain calls brought yet more tears to the eye (“I will move storms!”)
Post show there was a Q and A session led by producer Ian Wainwright. Mercy and Lucy from the pro company, Miles from the RSC education department and Erica joined us on stage for half an hour of discussion. There was a particularly moving statement from David Dickson the Head of Eastbury school whose pupils had been on stage at the two performances that day. He spoke eloquently about the effect that the project has had on raising his school’s literacy levels not only for those directly involved but for the other pupils too; truly great to hear. If anyone still doubts the need to take Shakespeare out from behind the desk then there is your answer. And on that heartwarrming note the day was just about over – time to catch up on all that missing sleep!
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
On the face of it I suppose it does seem odd to be celebrating someone’s death rather than their birth and yet that is precisely what has been happening up and down the country over the last few days as the quadricentennial (that’s 400 years to you and me) of William Shakespeare’s demise took place. In essence it’s probably no different from many a modern day memorial service commemorating the life and achievements of the recently departed rather than mourning their departure and in that sense it’s the man’s legacy that is up for celebration. Given the number of celebrity deaths which seems to be plaguing us this year (as I started this post it was announced that Victoria Wood had passed away and the next day Prince had also died) it looks like 2416 might be a busy old year. One thing’s fairly predictable though – a certain WS will still be being feted. There has, of course, been a wealth of commemorative events, performances, walks, talks, exhibitions and media events to choose from in the last week.
Many of the key ones were listed on last Tuesday night’s The One Show on BBC1. Four of the team had actually been invited to be part of the audience for the live show. Although seeing the programme being made was interesting (the studio is really really tiny) as an advertising opportunity for our particular production it was very much a “blink and you’ve missed it” affair. C’est la vie!
In any case I had already made my plans. Saturday started with a listen to Rufus Wainwright’s new album Take All My Loves based on nine of Shakespeare’s sonnets. This was a curious hybrid of wistful melancholy, opera and poetry reading (William Shatner, anyone?) but it made a fitting start to the day accompanied by a Spanish omelette – well, it was the 400th anniversary of Cervantes’s death as well.
it was the Bard’s big day so what was more appropriate than to see one of his plays?
the Canterbury Players are our nearest “neighbours” in this enterprise so I felt it would be appropriate to support their turn
I needed a timely reminder of the production itself as we gear up for our slot at the Barbican in less than a month
I had yet to see it acted on a proscenium arch stage as we will be doing (my previous visit was to see it on the thrust stage in Stratford) and it was my first time seeing Ayesha playing Titania throughout (on the previous occasion understudy Laura had done a very good job in her stead)
this version had one of the two female Bottoms – hats off to Lisa Nightingale for blazing a trail – and I was intrigued to see what differences this might throw up
So it was for the second time quite recently that I found myself at the Marlowe theatre. The auditorium was quite packed and I was once again mindful of just how big the place is. There were clearly a number of the school children’s’ family members in attendance and a definite buzz of excitement was evident as the start drew near. Tarek Merchant (MD on the show) walked on and we were off. The show looks to be in good shape. It was clear that the pros had been refining and improving their scenes during the course of the run and the production has become a lot slicker as a result. The amateur Mechanicals picked up the baton from their predecessors and ran well with it, scoring a palpable hit with the audience, especially in the Pyramus and Thisbe scene. The Canterbury group are equally balanced between male and female performers with, as already mentioned a female Bottom. Did that make any difference? Essentially no, the character works just as well either way it seems to me. However, the sexy chanteuse singing the ousel cock song and the “dying swan” delivered as part of Pyramus and Thisbe are not things I shall be attempting myself. In the interval I got to have an interesting chat with Sally (Canterbury Players’ director) and she was able to fill me in on how the final rehearsals worked for them and was able to give me some tips on what to expect from the big week. The time at the theatre fairly raced by and after the curtain calls Lucy Ellinson (Puck) reappeared to encourage us to give one more round of applause for the man without whom…This was long and hearty and, as is the way in the modern age, filmed on a smart phone to be uploaded to Twitter.
Next it was round to the stage door for some slightly luvviefied greetings, renewal of acquaintanceships and cries of “not long now” from Assistant Director Kim. Also there was Graham Fewell (Castle Players’ Snug) making good on his promise to go to all the different productions round the country. He’s on track so far despite still being on crutches after an accident had left him unable to perform in his particular stint. I can only imagine how devastated he must have felt to miss out but at least he has the encore at Stratford to look forward to.
AD Kim with a Rude Mechanical
Graham with Chu & Peter
Then it was back on the high speed train to London (still can’t believe it’s less than an hour to Canterbury these days). Here I opted for a taster session on the Globe Complete Walk. This was the Globe’s celebration centrepiece of ten minute films displayed on screens scattered along the South Bank and covering all of WS’s dramatic output. I’d initially planned to do the Walk in one fell swoop on the Sunday but having ‘done the math’ (37 screens at ten minutes a time plus time spent walking between each – you it out) a few days earlier I had realised that this might prove tricky. Besides, the London Marathon was also happening on the Sunday and scheduled to finish around Westminster – just the point where the walk starts. Thus I tackled the first seven screens a day earlier than planned. The first stop was the grounds of St Thomas’s hospital and a scene from Two Gentlemen of Verona (great). One of the first faces I saw on screen was Peter Hamilton Dyer who plays Egeus in the RSC Dream – apparently he has done a goodly amount of work at The Globe and I was to see his face several more times over the next 24 hours. From here it was straight along the South Bank until, just shy of Waterloo Bridge, I watched Romeo and Juliet (not so great, I’m afraid).
A little later than planned it was home for dinner (a meat pie since you ask….slightly unfortunate in that I’d just been watching Titus Andronicus; and if that remark doesn’t make any sense then you need to look up the plot of the play!) It was also time for the televised broadcast of the RSC’s Shakespeare Live! from Stratford upon Avon. This was a very feast of acting talent – including our old mate Mr Cumberbatch (ahem!) – and was a timely reminder of why the rest of the world often looks to the UK for classy thespianism.
The only bum note for me was that involving Prince Charles appearing in a sketch about rehearsing that line from Hamlet. Sorry, but to me it just smacked too much of trying to get one up on the Queen in the Olympics opening ceremony. That aside a great show and quite heavy on The Dream. With Judi Dench as Titania, David Suchet as Oberon, David Tennant as Puck and Al Murray as Bottom, I think the gauntlet has been well and truly thrown down.
On Sunday it was back to Waterloo where the first thing that confronted me when the tube train door opened was a giant poster of Lucy/Puck and Chu/Oberon advertising the Barbican run and which gave Tower Theatre equal billing with the RSC. Marvellous! (Apparently there are a total of 59 of these posters at 37 tube stations and a further 55 at 49 mainline stations including Gatwick and Luton airports – oh to have that sort of advertising budget). Picking up where I had left off the evening before, I spent the day ranging from Richard III outside the BFI to The Tempest in the shadow (literally, as night fell) of Tower Bridge. Highlights were Kenneth Cranham’s King Lear, an hilarious Omid Djalili in The Comedy of Errors, Toby Jones as Falstaff (someone should really cast him as this character very very soon), Timon of Athens with Simon Russell Beale and of course A Midsummer Night’s Dream where as well as enjoying the film I was able to do some surreptitious leafleting. It was a very long (and unfortunately bitterly cold) day. That said it was also an extremely rewarding event and it was particularly refreshing to see the crowds that were being drawn to watch, perhaps after having seen the Marathon which was proceeding on the north bank of the Thames as the Walk was happening on the south. In all, then, a veritable feast for the eyes and ears and bumping into the Dream’s movement director, Sian (at Twelfth Night) was a nice little bonus.
My only criticism is that the event was a bit too big for it to be done at leisure (took me just over eight hours in all) and it is a pity that it could only be mounted over one weekend. If the screenings were followed in strict order (which is what I did) the Complete Walk showed the chronological development of Shakespeare’s skill as a writer and the enormous legacy he has left. I believe plans are afoot to put all the films online; if that happens give yourself a treat and watch them. On a personal level the walk also served as a timely reminder that there are still seven of his plays I have yet to see on stage and that I must set about correcting that shortfall (Titus Andronicus, King John, Troilus and Cressida, Timon of Athens, Coriolanus, Henry VIII and Cymbeline if you’re interested).
That, then, was my Shakespeare weekender; oh, plus reading Jonathan Bate’s The Genius of Shakespeare, adding some thoughts to #ShakespeareSunday, writing a Shakespeare Day blog post, discovering a lost Shakespeare manuscript in the attic, doing a Shakespeare crossword and watching a BBC 4 documentary about Shakespeare on film – NB: I may have made one of those up* . And, of course, the celebrations are far from over yet. There’s plenty of good stuff coming up on the BBC, exhibitions and concerts continuing right round the country, books, articles, blogs and reports to be read and (and I’m not sure, but I may have already mentioned this) a certain little production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream that seems to be creating a stir wherever it goes. *It was the one about discovering the lost manuscript in the attic – I don’t actually have an attic!
This week the production is at the Theatre Royal in Norwich– click on the image below to reveal full details.