A Midsummer Night's Dream
Book and lyrics by Julian Chenery, music by Matt Gimblett, based on William Shakespeare
A musical adaptation by Shakespeare 4 Kidz
Sunderland Empire and touring
It's twelve years since I first saw a Shakespeare 4 Kidz production. That was A Midsummer Night's Dream at one of the Gilded Balloon venues at the Edinburgh Fringe and I waxed enthusiastic in my review. The current touring production - with, of course, a completely new cast - does nothing to change my mind.
Shakespeare purists, those who hate any interference with - or even cuts to - the master's plays will hate it. There's hardly any of Shakespeare's language left, there are lots of songs and the whole thing has a pantomime feel about it, including Puck talking directly to the audience à la panto comic. Quite a few scenes have been completely removed (although, because of the songs, the running time is 2 hours and 10 minutes) and others shortened. It is S4K's Dream, not Shakespeare's.
And the reason for that is quite simply that it is not intended for the Shakespeare purist, nor even, indeed, for adults, but, as the company's name says, for kids. The audience at Sunderland Empire was made up of mainly school parties (upper primary and lower secondary), with a few family groups, and they loved it. A primary school boy in front of me jumped to his feet at the curtain and his standing ovation was quickly joined in by a couple of rows of secondary kids across the aisle from me. Indeed they had loved it! They'd howled with laughter throughout and the pieces of pathos brought not a few "ahs". That's a bunch of kids who will not groan inwardly or outwardly when they are told they are going to "do" Shakespeare.
The story is told with crystal clarity. The characters, although admittedly a bit exaggerated, are accurate. Demetrius, for example, is a proper poseur, continually admiring and flexing his muscles, and Lysander is a bit of a wimp, but if we are honest and look at Shakespeare's portrayal of them with unreverential eyes, we have to admit that's what they are. And Helena, whose "I'll be your spaniel" is usually seen as describing her doglike devotion, here has a lolling tongue and doggy panting as she chases Demetrius. And isn't it odd that there's more textual justification for that than for Rupert Goold's setting of The Tempest for the RSC in an arctic wilderness?
We know from panto that kids almost always turn off in the romantic bits - it's something panto writers and directors are well aware of and so keep these scenes as short as possible or make use of a kids' favourite pop song to hold the attention - so to give Dream's romantic scenes some comedy is a wise move. The Mechanicals' scenes will always hold their attention, as will the Fairies', for magic grabs them, so to give the Lovers a bit of comedy ensured that there were no longueurs for the young audience.
Puck, played here with just a touch of camp by Noel Andrew Harron, takes the panto comic back to its roots. He is the Goblin (for so he is described in Shakepeare's own words), especially in his movement, but in make-up and costume he harks back to the great original of all panto comics, the Joey, looking remarkably like the most famous pictures of Grimaldi as Clown, holding a decanter of wine and a glass. The colours are different, greens predominating, but the echoes are unmistakable.
The production fairly romps along and the audience's attention never faltered for a second, and that's a real tribute to S4K, for these kids now know that Shakespeare is fun, not something to be dreaded or afraid of. And yes, I really enjoyed it too, as did the other adults in the audience. The ones behind me, with their very young families, certainly did.
The tour goes on to Carlisle, Radlett, Margate, Dorking, Ipswich, Sheffield, Stoke, Dartford, Barnstaple, Tunbridge Wells, Cambridge, Croydon, Wellingborough, Birmingham, Swindon, Worthing, Hastings, Stevenage, Harlow, Leicester, King's Lynn, Lincoln, Doncaster, Dubai, Southend, Wolverhampton, Salford, Camberley, Crawley, Folkestone, Torquay, Plymouth, Yeovil, Weston-super-Mare, Liverpool, Blackpool, Poole, Southsea, Basingstoke, Bromley, Oxford, Cardiff, Aylesbury, Llandudno, Hull, Grimsby, Lowestoft and Wakefield.
Reviewer: Peter Lathan