Those things do best please me

Throughout the writing of this blog I have been so fortunate that my colleagues in the team have added their own contributions. This has made it a real group effort in the spirit of A Midsummer Night’s Dream: A Play For The Nation. Thus they have written whole articles, contributed reports of trips to other groups, supplied photographs and oral reminiscences and generally offered their support to what has turned out to be quite a mammoth undertaking – as well, of course, as lending their huge talents to appearing in the production. My thanks then go to Maria, Adam, Al, David, Tom and Peta for their invaluable contributions and their companionship on this theatrical adventure.

Dream2016 collage
Composite of photos by Topher McGrillis (RSC)

As one last piece of collaboration I asked the others to nominate for me their best time, experience or moment in working on the Dream2016. There was an element of the “reality show” format to the beginning of this project so it only seems fitting that before the credits role we focus on the participant’s “best bits”. I am sure they found making a single selection as much of a challenge as I did simply because there were so many bits of magic to choose from. However, here, in their own words, are their choices and, indeed, mine.

Adam (Flute/Thisbe)

Read through 1
Tower Team and professionals at the first read through

For me one of the most defining and best moments was very early on when the six of us London amateurs read through the Mechanicals’ scenes in the script, with the professionals, for the first time. We were all sat around the rehearsal room in Clapham and we’d only just met the professionals a few minutes earlier. We felt a pressure, applied by ourselves, to make sure we did ourselves justice. We gave it some energy and performance and the professionals, cast and crew alike, laughed and congratulated us heartily for our efforts. For me it was the first time we knew this whole project would work and we would be able to work well with these excellent actors. It really gave us a great springboard into the rehearsal process.

Al (Snout/Wall)

Al Task 1
Al records his speech as Claudio

One of the many things I shall not forget is recording the speeches we did for preliminary Task 1. I had been allocated Claudio from Measure For Measure but because I was recovering from pneumonia when I recorded it I was late sending it in! I was relieved when David said he liked it and that it would do. We talked about why we had been given the particular speeches we each had, which led to some interesting speculation. I seem to recall that Erica talked about this at some point, and she may have referred to what I feel myself, namely that it is good for someone playing a grounded character like Snout to explore the terrors of the imagination and this mortal coil, and that brings us neatly back to the world of the Dream!

David (Amateur Group Director)

The first run through (Sue Downing from the Nonentities stood in for Maria)

The first read through was special. We had a head start of course having prepared two of the scenes and run through the others several times, but I felt proud of the Tower team at that point. Then we got the first run through in Clapham. We were lucky being the London team and therefore able to step into the Mechanicals shoes, but again it showed that the work we had done for ourselves and with the RSC production team had “the play fitted”. But most of all I think it is an overall impression and remembrance that at every stage, from whoever it was, there was a friendly atmosphere and we were welcome and included. Without exception, during rehearsal in Clapham, at the Barbican and in Stratford we were never made to feel less than full partners in an amazing adventure.

Maria (Quince)

Maria delivers the first prologue Photo by Topher McGrillis (RSC)

If there is one thing I am personally most proud of, it is being able to say that I nailed that first Quince monologue “If we offend…”. That monologue haunted and terrified me for a whole year! I tried it every way I could think of and it just didn’t work to my satisfaction. Trying to demonstrate a piece of Shakespeare which is punctuated in such a way that it becomes a nonsense is really hard! We got to the last few days before the performance at the Barbican and I still hadn’t got there. However, with the brilliant direction of AD Kimberley Sykes, it all suddenly clicked and for the first time I properly got it! On our opening night at the Barbican, where an enormous surge of adrenaline was palpably pulsing throughout the entire cast, I flew onto that stage and delivered the speech to the audience with a clarity I had never felt before and in return, the audience applauded. I’m told for that speech, that is a pretty good result!!

Peta (Snug/Lion)

Peta in the RST space

For me a magical moment while at Stratford was the final workshop with Michael Corbidge (Senior Voice and Text Coach) and Polly Bennett (Deputy Movement Director), which suddenly seemed to “unlock” the RST space for me. Such as having the courage to do things in a thrust space that would seem completely counter-intuitive on a proscenium stage; for example, turning outwards instead of inwards and learning to communicate with EVERY seat in the audience. It energised me and made the Stratford performances even more memorable than the London ones.

Tom (Starveling/Moonshine)

Tom as Moonshine with “lanthorn, dog and bush of thorn”

It is the small things I remember most fondly. The friendliness of rehearsals and the drink and talk afterwards – especially at David’s; our first meeting with the professional cast and their continuing warmth, encouragement and cheerfulness; the delight the schoolchildren seemed to have absorbed and then radiated in their performances; the woman in Stratford who approached me to ask if I was the Man in the Moon; meeting the casts from the other companies and being introduced by Erica to Greg Doran at the splendid farewell party. We have been involved with the Dream for over a year and no other play remains with me as this one will. I can retire from the stage happy.

Me (Bottom/Pyramus)

The Bergomask (don’t look too closely, it isn’t actually us)

I had a real breakthrough moment when I finally mastered the Bergomask dance at the end of the play. Dancing on stage (or at least as I have tended to think of it “co-ordinated” movement) has always been my bête noire and over the years I’ve talked myself into a position where I think it’s going to be a disaster before I’ve even started. Even David’s patience and Adam’s cheerful optimism wasn’t keeping my efforts afloat (I always found it distinctly ironic that my character was all for the dance and Adam’s wasn’t when in reality it was completely the reverse). It was when I visited one of the school rehearsals with Miles, a brilliant RSC Education consultant, and saw how joyous and free the children were with it that made me determined to conquer it; if they could do it, then so could I. I repeatedly ran the training video supplied by the RSC and found that I knew it backwards at home. But as soon as I got it into the rehearsal room the cracks reappeared. Then once in a session with assistant movement director Polly Bennett we were encouraged to go for it and enjoy it even if we went wrong. That’s when I realised that to an audience it’s not so much about hands and feet as what’s going on above the neckline. After that my demons quickly dropped away and by the end of the run I was positively looking forward to that climactic joyous moment. Whoo!

There are so many other outstanding moments and wonderful memories that we will treasure from being involved in Dream2016. We have met the most incredibly kind, talented and generous people, from the cast, creatives and crew and the other amateur groups. We have made friendships which we plan to continue far beyond this project and we have learned what it is to be directed by a wonderful group of women at the very top of their game and who have helped us to recognise our potential as performers. We can’t thank Erica Wyman and everyone at the RSC enough for giving the Tower Theatre Dreamteam the opportunity to be involved in the most thrilling theatrical experience of our lives. We will never forget a single one of you and we love you all to bits!!!!

Task 1 Feedback - Directors
Our three brilliant directors – Sophie, Kim and Erica

So, just one more blog post (probably) left to round out this extraordinary undertaking. Join me soon.

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.

Those things do best please me

A Towering legacy

I’d like to dedicate this post to my colleague Tom Tillery who is playing Starveling in the RSC production this summer and who is 80 years young today. He was an invaluable source of help in putting this post together and as he features quite heavily in it too (having previously played Bottom, Theseus and Quince) I’d like to think it’s a bit of a celebration of his work with Tower theatre over several decades. Happy birthday Tom! My thanks are also due to Tower members Doreen Shafran, Robert Pennant Jones, David Taylor, Jonathan Norris, Karen Walker, Al Freeman and Stephen Doak for their memories of previous Tower Dreams.

Toasting Tom Tillery

A couple of posts back I gave an overview of the RSC’s various productions of a play which has now been dominating our lives for well over a year. As A Midsummer Night’s Dream: A Play For The Nation is a joint co-operative enterprise it only seems right and proper that I should follow that post with another on Tower Theatre’s various and varied productions. Currently it would seem to be the most performed title in the company’s long history.

Founded in 1932, as the Tavistock Repertory Company, The Dream was played in that very first year for just two performances. Alas the archive shows little more than that it happened in June at the Tavistock Little Theatre in Bloomsbury and that it was directed by Robert Mitchell. The only other fact I have been able to locate is that the incidental music was composed by Michael Tippett, no less. Other than that, details of the cast, etc. are lost in the mists of time.

So let’s speedily fast forward 23 years to what was (by now) the Tower Theatre and a production which seems to have been rather better documented; it was directed by Frank Smith regarded as the founder of the company. Doreen Shafran – nee Rubenstein – recalls her involvement:

1955 (a)
1955: Doreen Rubenstein (Helena) – left – with Mary McCarthy (Hermia), Norman Rimmer (Lysander) & Michael Rothwell (Demetrius)

Frank Smith’s book “The Insubstantial Pageant” (which details the company’s early history) has a photo of the 1955 Dream – really posed and artificial but it does prove I was in it! I played Helena and I loved it. The photograph shows that we performed in the garden of The Tower Theatre –matinées to schools. I taught in a local primary school at the time and my class was there in the audience. When I said, “So is Lysander” there was a cry of surprise – “It’s Miss!” I only have one vivid rehearsal memory. Frank was leaning against the radiator and I was to come downstage (right close to him) and begin, “How happy some o’er other some can be!” But he was shaking his head sadly that I should be doing it so badly! The children enjoyed it though!

Well Doreen, I’m happy to report that you may have been a little hard on yourself there. A contemporary review states: “Both Mary McCarthy (Hermia) and Doreen Rubenstein (Helena) were in fine form – Iooks, costume and style” and pronounced the whole production as “a pretty triumphant end to a season of high quality. “Further details can be found here.

The next production came in 1965; indeed it might be said there were two productions – or even three depending on how they are counted. It’s probably easier if I let others tell the story so over to you Mr Tillery:

The first 1965 production was directed by Jessica Taylor. I didn’t think there was anything in it for me but she insisted she wanted a young Bottom and I was persuaded to audition for it. We did it for school’s performance. There was one performance where the children were making so much noise that Tim Seely/Oberon had to come out and shout at them. Order was restored and then at the end all the girls were outside asking for his autograph. In retrospect I was glad I took on the part although rehearsals were a little strange. Jessica directed all the scenes but when it came to Pyramus and Thisbe she said “Just go away and rehearse something, bring it back and I’ll see if it’s alright.”

I can’t help but be struck by the slightly similar way we have rehearsed the current production so at least Tom’s used to working like that. One other point of note is that Bill Dudley (later known as an influential theatre designer) played Francis Flute. More on this production here.

To understand what happened next, let’s turn to Robert Pennant Jones:

I was asked to redirect the 1965 production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream since we were planning to take two productions to Arles-en-Provence, to play in the Theatre Antique; these were the redirected Dream and A Winter’s Tale with the same cast. While it was expected that some of the cast would not be available to go to France, in the event most did. The Arles adventure nearly bankrupted the company, though the achievement of playing both productions in France was a considerable organisational and artistic triumph. Tom Tillery’s performance as Bottom was one of these triumphs. I can even now still hear his hesitantly quavering voice as he launched into “the ousel cock” song. One of the Arles newspapers recorded that the part of Bottom was played by “the celebrated comedian Tontillini”.

Tom has his own distinct memories of this production:

1965: Tom as Bottom (though you’d be forgiven for not recognising him) with Marilyn Gold as Titania

The theatre (open air) was round the corner from the bullring so we couldn’t perform while they were being run. This meant starting at 9.00 pm which was a bit dangerous as you might go out for a meal and a glass of wine or two. But we had a great time. Then we came back to London and did it for another week for schools’ audiences. In all, playing in A Midsummer Night’s Dream took up a whole year of my life

Now…where have I heard that before? Anyway, that clears up the somewhat tortuous nature of the 1965 production(s). There is more on the latter versions here.

1984; Tom channels his inner Peter Wyngarde as Theseus with Karen Killaspy as Hippolyta

Another significant leap forward takes us to 1984 and a production directed by Sara Randall. This time Tom played Theseus. He remembers some difficulties over the designer reneging at the eleventh hour which left the company with a less than satisfactory set. Playing the part of Oberon in the same cast was Al Freeman (currently our Snout). His memories of this production were brief and to the point:

I had a large head dress which was slightly like having a ram’s head and a light sabre to go with it. I also spent a long while up a tree.

For more on this production click here.

1995 saw a production which played at both Le Jardin de Shakespeare, Paris (as Le Songe d’une Nuit d’Ete) as well as back home in London. Suitably there were two directors, Robert Pennant Jones and Penny Tuerk. The former recalls this was one of the first Tower productions that visited Paris:

We split rehearsals, with Penny responsible for the mechanicals. Jill Batty was a superb Titania. The success in France encouraged us to continue with our annual excursions.

Jonathan Norris was in the cast as Peter Quince:

1995: The Mechanicals with Peter Quince (Jonathan Norris) centre

The roles and characters of Bottom and Quince were closely mirrored by Harry Stern and me during rehearsal in that he was inclined to overrule about how things should be said and done – art imitating life! Jill Batty was complimented by someone about her dancing and she said something like “No! – I just prance about a bit.” Clive Hammett as Starveling was actually not a company member but was an ASM. When he appeared on stage we performed it as if someone hadn’t turned up, and so he would have to do – art imitating life again!

More on this production here and here

2002: Tom as Peter Quince with Robert Hardy at the Tower of London

Two shortened versions of the play came next. In 2002, Tower Theatre got to perform The Dream at the other rather more famous Tower – The Tower of London. This was as part of a corporate event for an international management consultants and involved Robert Hardy (that’s the Robert Hardy) providing linking narration in what was a heavily truncated version running at just 45 minutes and directed by Peter Novis. Tom this time played Peter Quince. Also in the cast was Karen Walker playing Titania – Karen is now our rehearsal Titania for the current production. The production was then repeated in the Tower Theatre garden. See here for further details. 2005 saw another

2005: The cast in the garden of Thurston Hall End, Hawkedon

shortened version given as a private tour to an arts festival in Bathmen, Holland and then at various gardens in Sussex, London and Suffolk, directed by Janet South and organised by David Taylor – our current director. Karen again played Titania (it’s obviously habit forming) and she remembers that there was a female Quince (Jill Batty) and that the children who appeared in it were sourced locally at each venue – again this is very reminiscent of how our show will be working.

In 2012 (as it had in 1995) The Dream was chosen for double duty in Paris and in London and as before had shared directing duties – this time by Jean Carr and John Morton. My immediate predecessor as Bottom, Stephen Doak, kept his own record of what seems to be a very damp Parisian affair:

TUES: Drizzling half-heartedly through the first half before cheering up and making a bit more effort in the second. I cunningly reblocked myself under the shelter of trees for all my first half scenes. Hopefully this was interpreted as generosity on my part, allowing my fellow actors to use the full stage.

2012: Stephen Doake (Bottom/Pyramus) & Tom Rooke (Flute/Thisbe) in Paris (looks quite dry to me!)

WED: Today we were treated to unflinching Biblical rain. Half the cast had caught a bus which booted them off in the middle of nowhere after a passenger was taken ill and had walked for 20 minutes, arriving wetter than anything you’ve seen outside an aquarium and with only the prospect of soaking their costumes ahead of them. The tunnels were awash. Water flowed in little streams through two of the four entrances. Costumes and footwear were swiftly removed to higher ground. In the event, the rain stopped minutes before curtain up. On we went, but my donkey ears were a bit damp.

Well at least we won’t have that problem at the Barbican or in Stratford! There is more on this production both here and here.

So, it’s a long long way from 1932 to 2016; some 50 Tower actors have played the Mechanicals in the various incarnations (though only Tom has played more than one – he’s currently on his third) and writing this piece has made me all too conscious of the baton the current team is picking up in representing the company and working with the RSC. When I talked to Tom about his long involvement with Shakespeare’s comedy we were sitting on the terrace at the Barbican as we waited to start a rehearsal there and I concluded by asking him what had been his favourite role out of all those he’d played in The Dream. Without a moment’s hesitation he said “Bottom”. No pressure then!

From 1955…..
…..To 2016

This week the production is at the Marlowe Theatre in Canterbury– click on the image below to reveal full details.


A Towering legacy