Shakespeare belongs to everyone. That belief is the seedling of Erica Whyman’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream: A Play for the Nation, and it branches out in many admirable ways. The RSC’s ambition to tour the production in twelve regions all over the country is commendable. It not only widens audience access across the UK but also extends that participation to the very stage.
In each location, local amateur actors play the mechanicals (the boisterous clowns who muddle through Pyramus and Thisbe) and 10 local schoolchildren join Titania’s flock of fairies. These actors and young people get to work alongside professional actors; they become integral parts in the creation of theatre and engage with Shakespeare. And so do their family and friends, as they naturally sit in the seats and support their loved ones. It’s an admirable and an effective way of realising the RSC’s own dream to bring the Bard to homes across the UK.
Whyman roots the aesthetic of her Dream in this vision of the nation. Whyman’s selection of a loosely-1940s setting as the Athenian backdrop is part of a deliberate commentary on the beginning of the divide between professional and amateur actors in the UK with the founding of the Arts Council. Tom Piper accentuates the mechanics of theatre with overt sandbags dangling above the actors and a half-constructed building sitting upstage centre. The costumes are also an homage to performance itself: Lucy Ellinson’s plucky Puck is in a suit and top hat and Chu Omambala’s smooth Oberon swaggers in a crisp white suit. A grand piano is Titania’s fairy-bed and musicians sit at either side of the stage. Whyman wants us to look at performance as a genre, as a community-builder, and as national history.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream is therefore a good play to choose. It continually alludes to its own theatricality, with the mechanicals and with Puck’s final speech. Asking the audience to reflect on what they’ve seen, to forgive the performers (if shadows have offended), and to question reality itself, Ellinson’s Puck flits about the stage with a bee-like buzz. She’s a delight and owns her clowned version of the mischievous fairy. Jack Holden’s Lysander is also a real scene-stealer, strikingly proper until descending into frenzied love. Whyman takes full advantage of the many opportunities for song and dance in the play, and gives the schoolchildren choreography in Titania’s song.
But while these are strong directorial strokes, the production is almost restricted by them. The dance feels a bit like the play in Love Actually, where a bid for inclusivity results in some lobsters lounging in a manger. The problem is that the amateur actors aren’t fully integrated into the piece, most likely due to a lack of time, and so the whole thing borders on gimmicky. The Tower Theatre Company actors are very entertaining (particularly Peta Barker’s bashful Snug) but their scenes are stymied by a lack of direction. They stand more or less stationary, and even their climactic play-within-the-play — the moment when Whyman could really explore performance for performance sake — is not nearly playful enough. The scenes with the lovers implicitly acknowledge the problem: the professional actors barely stand still and perform near-acrobatics in a desperate attempt to balance out the stasis.
If Shakespeare belongs to everyone and this is a play for the nation, it seems important to question what exactly the nation is. Considering that the future of this nation is currently in question, it would have been a good opportunity to question and decipher this country’s role in relation to the world. Small political nods are made with red carpets for Theseus (Sam Redford) and Laura Harding’s Eva Peron-like Hippolyta, but those nods are not pursued. With Rice’s production at the Globe really challenging how we approach Shakespeare, it’s a reminder that making Shakespeare accessible is also about modernizing the ways we engage with the texts and about creating provocative theatre that cultivates conversation.
Whyman’s Dream is full of potential which isn’t ever made real. Ellinson finishes Puck’s epilogue, ‘And Robin shall restore amends’, with raised voice at the very end. It’s a question, asking the audience if they were successful in pulling it off. And that bit of doubt, that moment of hesitance, echoes loudly in the air until the applause begins, as if Puck himself is unsure of their success.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream returns to Stratford-upon-Avon from 15th June – 16th July and Tower Theatre Company will perform on the Royal Shakespeare Theatre stage on 11th and 12th July.