Thursday, 14 July 2022

Review: A Midsummer Night's Dream (Time and Again Theatre Company, GM Fringe)

Friday 8 July 2022
International Anthony Burgess Foundation

The Greater Manchester Fringe is on throughout the month of July at various venues around Greater Manchester. And, once again, I’m going to be reviewing a selection of the productions on offer for this blog, and also for The Festival Show on North Manchester FM.

On Friday 8th July, I was at the International Anthony Burgess Foundation to review A Midsummer Night’s Dream, a performance by Time and Again Theatre Company. The radio version of this review will be going out on The Festival Show on Friday 15th July, but here’s the blog version…

Time and Again’s adaptation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream is set in the 1980s. The production opens on a set featuring a wall of fencing covered in ‘period’ posters – some pop culture (concert and album posters), some political (class conflict, the Miners Strike and women’s rights loom large). As the audience take their seats, 1980s pop music plays – and, indeed, this is the music that will form the soundtrack to what we are about to watch.

The play begins with members of the cast arriving, placards waving, to push against the fence and shout slogans associated with the Miners Strike and other industrial actions of the mid-1980s. This might seem like an odd way to start an adaptation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, but it does work – and I’ll come back to why shortly. (I will just say, it should probably be described as a 1980s ‘vibe’ rather than ‘setting’, as it is irreverently anachronistic, with period details, costume and music being taken from the entire decade, even when that doesn’t make any sense – Puck probably shouldn’t be playing on a Gameboy next to some striking miners. But Shakespeare’s plays are always irreverently anachronistic, aren’t they?)

Although I’ve called this an adaptation of Shakespeare’s play, it’s probably more accurate to call it a ‘production with idiosyncratic staging’. As an aside I’d just say that I’ve never actually seen a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream that didn’t have idiosyncratic staging (I’ve seen performances in forests, in weirdly urban settings, in different time periods) – of all Shakespeare’s plays, it is the one that most lends itself to quirky inventiveness. The text as written (as it has survived) is pretty quirky itself: set as it is in Athens, but with a distinctly English flavour (not least in the use of herbs and flowers that are definitely more Warwickshire than Athens), and featuring a set of fairies that are one part folklore, one part Classical myth.

So, despite the set-dressing and soundtrack, in many ways we’re on solid ground with Time and Again’s production. Any Shakespeare purists in the audience will no doubt be reassured by the arrival of Theseus (Samantha Vaughan) and Hippolyta (Keziah Lockwood), who are preparing for the wedding, followed by Egeus (Sammy Wells) and his disobedient daughter Hermia (Tabitha Hughes) who introduce the love quadrangle that forms the ‘aristocratic humans’ part of the plot.

There are some nice touches here. Vaughan’s Theseus is played as a lofty but jovial landowning duke – dressed in country attire ready for a day of shooting. Hughes’s (a little bit spoilt, a little bit na├»ve) Hermia is styled in a two-piece, cinched waist blazer and matching pencil skirt, accessorized with chunky accessories and de rigeur little shoulder bag. With the arrival of the other ‘aristocratic humans’, this aesthetic is enhanced. Demetrius (Anthony Morris) is a Yuppie in red braces, and poor old Helena (Jessica Ayres) matches Hermia’s fashion choices, but in a slightly more muted, more conservative way.

Time and Again offer some innovation with their Lysander (played Leah Taylor), who is a woman, which offers some implicit motivation for Egeus’s refusal to allow Hermia to marry Lysander. Nevertheless, this isn’t explicitly stated. The production uses Shakespeare’s text pretty much as written, but switches pronouns for Lysander. Taylor’s Lysander is a bit swaggering and a bit punk on first glance – shorts, big black boots, a ‘Frankie Says Relax’ t-shirt under a black blazer. Of course, Lysander is essentially the same class as Hermia, Helena and Demetrius, so this is really just show. I don’t know whether it was deliberate or not, but I certainly enjoyed the fact that Lysander’s t-shirt wasn’t an official Frankie Goes to Hollywood t-shirt (which, to be geeky, have ‘Frankie Say Relax’ on them), as it chimed with Taylor’s performance of Lysander as a bit of a show-off who might have more in common with Demetrius than she’s letting on.

I’ve called these characters the ‘aristocratic humans’, because, of course, they are intended to contrast with the ‘lower class humans’. The ‘Rude Mechanicals’ of Shakespeare’s play are, here, a group of striking miners who first appear on stage singing ‘Solidarity Forever’, before settling down to rehearse their play, Pyramus and Thisbe, which will be performed at the wedding of Theseus and Hippolyta. Now, it might seem nonsensical that a group of strikers would be preparing a performance to entertain a duke, but this is where the 1980s setting becomes more than just an aesthetic. As Time and Again themselves point out in the Directors’ Note for the production, the 1980s in Britain were characterized by industrial action, but also by mass celebrations for royal weddings and royal babies. The class system in Britain is a weird thing, and it’s oddly easy to imagine politically charged protestors pausing their chants of ‘Maggie Out!’ to show a little bit of deference to an aristocrat’s nuptials. After all, didn’t we all recently halt our cries of ‘Boris Out!’ to have a lovely Jubilee afternoon tea and wish Her Majesty well?

The Rude Mechanicals are very much the rough comic relief of the play. Hassan Javed’s Snug (who is Pyramus and Thisbe’s lion) is endearingly daft; Catherine Cowdrey plays Starveling (who will use a lantern to represent ‘moonlight’ in the play-with-the-play) almost like a character from a Victoria Wood sketch; and Adam Martin-Brooks’s Francis Flute appears to be the only to remember there is a class war going on (albeit a slightly woolly one), sneaking an interjection of ‘fascist!’ into his big death scene in Pyramus and Thisbe.

Of course, the scene-stealer in this regard is Nick Bottom (Tim Cooper). Cooper is enjoyably OTT in his initial appearance, capturing the ridiculousness of the character – Bottom, after all, is a bit of an ass even before his transformation. Cooper hams up the initial appearance of Bottom to perfection, making increasingly bizarre requests of the long-suffering Peter Quince (Kieran Palmer), and his transformation is handled with excellent comic timing. Nevertheless, Cooper is also well able to handle the small moments of pathos. His confusion at his friends’ fear on seeing his transformed appearance (which, in this performance, involves a neon pink hardhat with wiry donkey ears and a pair of aviator glasses) gives way to tangible dejection, and there is a very brief, but rather moving, moment after he is changed back into human form that makes us feel real pity for the man’s isolation.

But… this is A Midsummer Night’s Dream, so as you might expect, the fairies are the stars of the show. And then some!

In case you were still wondering if the 1980s theme was a reasonable creative choice, I will say that I can’t think of more appropriate entrance music for Oberon than Adam Ant’s ‘Prince Charming’. It captured the style and tone of Time and Again’s fairy world perfectly.

Oberon and Titania were doubled with Theseus and Hippolyta, with Vaughan and Lockwood playing the two couples. Lockwood’s Titania is a sweeter and gentler version of the fairy queen than I’ve seen before, and the meanness of the trick Oberon plays on her is thrown into sharp focus by the sense of vulnerability that comes through Lockwood’s performance. Her retinue of fairies are doubled with the Rude Mechanicals, with Peaseblossom, Cobweb, Mustardseed and Moth tripping onto the stage in more ways than one (if you know what I mean). I particularly enjoyed Cowdrey’s Mustardseed, who I think I last met in a field at Glastonbury (I think there might have been some mushrooms growing on that bank where the wild thyme grows…) and Javed’s Moth, whose military style jacket and comical ‘foot soldier’ air reminds us that Shakespeare’s fairies grew out of a literary tradition in which the fairy king came with a retinue that was armed and dangerous. There is no menace, though, in Titania’s band. That is very much the preserve of her spouse.

Vaughan’s Oberon is just wonderful. In a production full of excellent performances, it’s hard to point to a standout, but I was mesmerized by the fairy king. Oberon is visually arresting – dressed in black, with a black-and-white ruff and New Romantic-inspired make up, he looks like a monochrome Harlequin – but Vaughan’s performance really made the part. Veering between menacing and whimsical, megalomaniacal and romantic, Oberon is a force of nature here, demanding the audience’s attention each time he appears.

He is, however, almost upstaged on occasion by his companion. Ty Mather’s Puck (aka Robin Goodfellow) captures the idea of ‘impishness’ in all its glory. Playful at times, but downright worrying at others, Puck dances around the human characters with a glee that is a lot of fun to watch. However, Mather also imbues their Puck with more of a commanding presence than is often the case, reminding us that this is the king’s second-in-command after all. And while we are watching Puck, the fairy is also watching us. Mather’s Puck appears to be very aware of the audience, stopping just short of direct interaction, which (of course) prepares us nicely for Puck’s role in the play’s ending.

Overall, as this review should clearly have shown, this is an excellent production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Yes – it has an idiosyncratic setting. But it also feels incredibly authentic and true to the spirit of Shakespeare’s play (I think I’m right in saying that William Shakespeare was not familiar with the song ‘Safety Dance’ by Men Without Hats, but if he had been, we can surely all agree he would have had the Rude Mechanicals dance to it at the end of Pyramus and Thisbe).

A Midsummer Night’s Dream is undoubtedly one of Shakespeare’s more unequivocally joyful plays. While there are academic arguments that can be made about its theme and construction, a performance of this play should, above all else, be fun. And Time and Again’s production is filled to the brim with jouissance and affection. Sometimes, characters seem to be in real danger – Titania and Bottom are both rather vulnerable, and Hermia and Helena are put through the ringer by both the aristocratic humans and the fairies – but it’s just a bit of fun in the end. When Puck addresses the audience at the play’s conclusion, telling us that no harm was meant by the play, and that if we’re offended by what we’ve seen, we should just imagine that it was all a dream, the strains of Human League’s ‘Together in Electric Dreams’ begins to play. The cast dance together, and the audience sings along, breaking down the boundaries between performer and spectator and creating a sense of communal joy that was really quite powerful.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream was on for one night only at the Greater Manchester Fringe, though the company have performed it at other venues previously. If you get chance to see it in the future, this one is a very strong recommendation from me.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream was on at the International Anthony Burgess Foundation on 8th July, as part of the Greater Manchester Fringe. For the full programme of Greater Manchester Fringe shows on this year, please visit the festival website.

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