The calm before…

The tour fairy baton
Tour baton

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:

Adam and Al Norwich
Flute and Snout go travelling

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’.

The Common Lot as Shakespeare's Rude Mechanicals. Credit - Topher McGrillis
The Common Lot gather around Owen’s Bottom (sorry!) Photo by TopherMcGrillis RSC

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

Albert the carthorse – Wind In The Willows

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.

BBC Dream

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.


The calm before…