This play, master of the revels Brice Stratford declares in A Midsummer Night’s Droll’s introduction, “has not been touched by actors or academics for nearly 400 years… and you’re about to find out why!” His whole intro is a masterclass in grandiose self-deprecation. During the Interregnum, when theatre was illegal (Stratford insists) drolls were performed by those actors not good enough at acting to perform elsewhere in Europe, nor good enough at anything else to take up a trade. He promises that his company (The Owle Schreame) will follow in this tradition.
In fact, this performance of the longest surviving droll – a bastardised version of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream – tells a lot about why drolls have been ignored. Not, as Stratford’s tongue-in-cheek intro suggests, because they are bad plays, but probably because they refuse to conform to the predominantly literary and respectable reception of Shakespeare’s work that gained currency in the eighteenth century. (Well worth pointing out here that Shakespeare’s own work refuses to completely conform to this, which is why writers like John Dryden felt compelled to tidy up the bard’s supposedly messy and imperfect meter.)
Instead, they embrace (and then throttle) a different set of values. This droll version of Dream does away completely with the four central lovers (the ones whose names you used to get mixed up at school), and with them all of the ‘philosophical’ bits – no more statements about how “the course of true love never did run smooth”, no more testing of the line between love, magic and madness. Unless I missed it, this version does not even include a motivation for Puck and Oberon giving Bottom an ass’s head. They just sort of do it.
What’s left are the bits of the play that meet in the convergence of whatever audiences wanted to see and what the actors had the means to produce. A Midsummer Night’s Droll is a play about a group of rustics who rehearse and perform Pyramus and Thisbe, with a subplot about one of the actors transforming into a donkey-man and falling in love with a fairy. Why was this the theatre that performers risked the ire of the Puritans to perform? The short answer seems to be: because it’s hilarious. It’s rip-roaringly, grotesquely, anarchically funny. There is no fidelity to Shakespeare here: the only fidelity is to whatever scenes, songs or debauchery would hold the attention of whatever restless, half-shot audience could be cobbled together.
And that’s where this particular production suffers something of an anxiety of audience. Stratford promises us original performance conditions – and to an extent this is what we get, especially via Amélie Rousseau and Laura Romer-Ormiston’s superb costume design : actors wear tatters inspired by the mummers and morris sides that would have trod the same flagstones as the droll performers. Stratford-as-Bottom-as-Pyramus has much fun wielding a ridiculously big broom in the place of a sword.
But the nice, clean, corporate setting of a city-centre Radisson Hotel doesn’t seem quite right. It’s all a bit too refined. A different location – raucous, bar-adjacent – would both bring in and create a different audience, one that would howl with laughter, cheer and perhaps even heckle. That, one imagines, would be more like original performance conditions, and might reveal a lot about how this stuff would have interacted and evolved in front of the audiences it encountered.
One of the most fascinating things about this version of Dream is the way that the text itself engages with a comparable question of the suitability of audiences and performance contexts. When the rustics finally perform Pyramus and Thisbe to the lords and ladies at Theseus’s wedding, the droll script specifies that the company multi-role as aristocratic audience members, who offer savagely scornful reviews of each scene. James Carney (who elsewhere plays Quince and Oberon) relishes this particular conceit and is a beauty to behold as he ridicules his fellow actors.
The heavy embellishment from Shakespeare’s script offers all sorts of clues about how actors and different audiences saw each other. It also, as Stratford claims in the show’s outro, provides the first example of multi-roling for identifiably artistic (rather than merely practical) purposes. Given the ostensibly unartistic context of the drolls’ existence, it is a remarkable segment of meta-theatrical comic bravado.
Whilst A Midsummer Night’s Droll does not quite match the peaks of debauched comedy of the shorter drolls that The Owle Schreame brought to the Fringe two years ago (I still fondly remember Carney’s face being pummelled with curdled milk), its presentation of a full-length play signals a different kind of ambition for the company. Furthermore, it recaptures a fascinating moment in the history of Shakespearean performance, and provides valuable insight into the values and commerce of the drolls that the short works alone can’t offer.
But this is far from a purely academic exercise. It would be adored by the same audiences who seek the rowdiness of Shit-faced Shakespeare or the Free Fringe’s most frenetic comedy. I hope in future years, The Owle Schreame drive some drolls full-throttle into the kinds of venues and audiences that will ramp up its already high-velocity pelt. Until then, anyone with a taste for the frantic, the unruly and the downright illegal should take a look for themselves. In whatever context, A Midsummer Night’s Droll is almost criminally good.
A Midsummer Night’s Droll is on at theSpace on the Mile until 25th August 2018. Click here for more details.