A Midsummer Nights Dream: A Play for the Nation

William Shakespeare
Royal Shakespeare Company
Northern Stage, Newcastle

Chu Omambala (Oberon) and Ayesha Dharker (Titania) Credit: Topher McGrillis
Lucy Ellinson (Puck) and Chu Omambala (Oberon) Credit: Topher McGrillis
Laura Riseborough (Helena) with Lucy Ellinson (Puck) in the background Credit: Topher McGrillis
Chris Nayak (Demetrius), Mercy Ojelade (Hermia) and Jack Holden (Lysander) Credit: Topher McGrillis
Pete McAndrew (Bottom) with Gordon Russell (Snug), Jo Kelly (Quince), Mike Smith (Starvling) and Michael White (Flute) Credit: Topher McGrillis

Commemorating the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, the RSC is touring one of his most popular plays, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, to eleven different venues throughout the UK before returning to Stratford in June/July.

Nothing unusual about that, you may say, but what makes this production different is the fact that, at each venue, the Mechanicals are played by amateur actors from that region (two groups alternating performances) and Titania’s train is made up of children from two local schools—a bold and potentially quite risky move.

Having been seen in Stratford, the production has, most appropriately, arrived at Newcastle’s Northern Stage as the first stop on the tour. It’s appropriate because its director, Erica Whyman, was Chief Executive of Northern Stage from 2005 until she left to become Deputy Artistic Director of the RSC in January 2013.

It is set in an Athens which in many ways parallels post-WW2 Britain: a backdrop of half-destroyed buildings, doors going nowhere, a rickety wooden staircase, poppies scattered everywhere (including a reminder of the cascade of red tumbling down the wall of the Tower of London) and music (composed by Sam Kenyon) echoing the jazz of the period.

And, of course, it is the end of a war. Theseus wooed the Amazon Hippolyta “with his sword” and “won thy love doing thee injuries” and the coming wedding is setting “another key,” replacing war with peace and joy.

Right! That’s the introduction. Now let’s skip to the end when the (metaphorical) curtain comes down and the musicians leave the stage: an elderly lady on my left turned to me, a big beaming smile on her face, and said, “wasn’t that brilliant?” Moments later the much younger lady on my right, as we stood to leave, said to me, “that was excellent!” And that was certainly the message coming from all the conversations I overheard.

OK, eavesdropped on—but not out of vulgar curiosity; merely the critic sampling audience reaction, and it was uniformly enthusiastic.

Although it’s two and a quarter hours long (plus interval), Whyman’s production seems much shorter. It positively rattles along with scene blending seamlessly into scene and never a joke or a humorous moment is missed. And the amateur actors from the People’s Theatre, under their director Chris Heckels, were more than equal to the challenge of working alongside the RSC’s professionals. Indeed, I’ve seen poorer performances of Bottom from professionals so Pete McAndrew’s performance is quite special.

(The People’s cast, by the way, alternates with a group from the Castle Players of Barnard Castle.)

There’s a cast of 30, including the musicians (playing Oberon’s Fairies) but not counting the children, and it’s very much an ensemble production. At times there might be only one or two actors on the stage but at others it's full, not only of principal characters but fairies too—and what fairies! Titania’s adult fairies are generally really quite threatening in appearance and movement, and Oberon’s bring their instruments with them and play them as part of complex choreographed movement. The energy is terrific.

It really would be invidious to single anyone out for special mention, for all the cast entirely inhabit their parts and give their all, but I really must comment on Lucy Ellinson’s androgynous Puck, so besuited and top-hatted that, on first seeing her, I thought immediately of the Artful Dodger. Puck does indeed have the same amorality and delight in mischief.

“Lord, what fools these mortals be!”

Ellinson knows how to work an audience and, by the raising of an eyebrow or a sly smile, makes them complicit in the mayhem she is creating—and, boy, do we delight in that complicity!

There is no doubt that this Dream for the Nation is, to quote another of Shakespeare’s most popular plays, “a hit, a palpable hit!”

Reviewer: Peter Lathan

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