A Midsummer Night's Dream

William Shakespeare
Footsbarn Theatre Company
The Big Tent at The Cartoucherie, Paris
(2008)

In a world changing so rapidly, it is nice to know that at least one thing remains constant: Footsbarn. Like the original strolling players from days of yore, the Footsbarn Company has reached out across the globe, travelling with tent and caravans, children, actors, musicians and all in tow, spreading their bonhommie and their gift for engaging audiences of any age or culture. I first saw Footsbarn's work thirty years ago, and I'm very sad to say that thirteen years have passed since my last encounter with them. Far too long!

But last night in their big tent outside the Cartoucherie in Paris I remembered what it is that makes them special: every member of the audience at a Footsbarn performance feels the excitement one only feels when genuinely sharing an experience. The Footsbarn company have the remarkable ability to lift an audience up and carry it away on a fantastical journey like one big family on adventure bound. Besides the generosity of spirit that characterises Footsbarn performers, there is an essential delight in the game of pretend we are all sharing that vibrates in every moment.

A Midsummer Night's Dream is a Footsbarn revival. It is a well-polished, slickly-paced show which never loses the rough quality of life itself. It carries the hallmark of their inimitable style: dynamic, irreverent, imaginative, heart-warming and hilarious. It takes a great deal of energy, skill and professionalism to perform a Shakespeare classic with seven actors all doubling roles, maintaining the pacing through quick costume and character changes. Footsbarn make it seem effortless.

The action slips over into three inter-related worlds: the Athenian court with its noble lovers; the fairy world with its magic and mystery; and the comical antics of working-class amateur dramatics. Bottom the Weaver is the key figure who passes the barriers separating the three worlds. This is a Bottom who is both ridiculous and yet loveable. His ass's mask is magnificent. Vincent Gracieux hits exactly the right note as Peter Quince, the would-be playwright/director of the 'mechanicals', balancing the comedy with a touch of would-be gravitas and in many respects he is our intermediary into the world of the play as a whole.

Mas Soengeng's Puck, based on a Balinese mask tradition, is a tantalising creature of the night, part animal, part demon. Earthy, scary, furry and funny he moves among the mortals and delights in reeking havoc. And it is Helena in this production who provides us with a gateway into the lovers' world; a lost paradise of youthful misery, best illustrating Puck's comment: 'lord what fools these mortals be'.

The fairies are delightful. Created by the cast members through masks and movement, they are evocative of forest creatures and magical realms. The set is imaginative and functional, recognisable and yet with a good dash of the exotic.

The culminating event is, of course, the burlesque of Pyramus and Thysbe, performed with considerable comic verve and perfect pacing to lift the end of the show and send us all into chortles of delighted laughter. It was a tour de force by the amateur dramatic society of Bottom the Weaver, Flute the Bellows Mender and Snug the Joiner, not to mention Peter the master of ceremonies.

This is a show for all ages. It is going on tour throughout France and the UK, and perhaps beyond. Footsbarn's caravans are heading your way, so start booking your tickets now.

Until 3 February, then touring through France, the UK and Ireland

Howard Loxton reviewed this production in Victoria Park, Hackney

Jackie Fletcher