Brighton Festival 2019
Director Peter Stickney’s production begins its tour at Brighton. With Alex Beetschen’s musical arrangements, Morgan Brind’s set and costumes, Darren Royston’s choreography, and costume design and supervision by Polly Laurence.
Till May 25th, then in various destinations till September 15th. Contact at firstname.lastname@example.org
There’s a breathtaking little moment late in this production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream that shows after 15 years, the UK’s premier all-male ensemble is still growing. Their tour actually starts here, tours for four months and ends in France and Germany.
The Lord Chamberlain’s Men have become a Brighton Festival feature since 2017, taking over the old Globe Touring slot (now in July), first at BOAT (Brighton Open Air Theatre), and now back at the Globe’s earlier space, St Nicholas Rest, for just five performances.
Director Peter Stickney’s take on A Midsummer Night’s Dream with a seven-strong troupe is refreshing, often very funny and faithful. It’s a pretty full text with a few nips but not too many tucks.
For instance the global warming speech from Oberon’s given fully: ‘We are its parents and originals.’ You can see a young extinction-rebellion audience take this in with shock recognition.
Open air means losing some subtlety, engaging in badinage (that would be bandage with the Rude Mechanicals malapropisms) and high japes, though in this production not interacting save in pre-set walkabouts. What it sometimes also means is losing vocal dexterity, clarity and audibility. That’s emphatically not the case here, and as for subtlety of gesture there’s some sleights of garment worth returning to.
TLCM take this play back to its roots, as a wedding celebration for the granddaughter of the patron – from whom they take their name – in 1596. Alex Beetschen’s arrangements of the famous pavane by Thoinot Arbeau (an anagram of Jehan Tabourot), which was sung then, with songs by Francis Pilkington and his own of Robin Goodfellow render this particular production uniquely musical. And very moving. Performing like a seven-strong madrigal group TLCM make a multi-layered singing instrument. It’s both soothing and seductive.
Morgan Brind’s set and costumes feature green and yellow vertical slashes round the platform with a bower fronded by greenery-yallery attempts at modesty (Bottom with Titania for instance); where costume design and supervision by Polly Laurence extends to more greenwood buskin-wearing as one theme, with flourishes of leaves. Others are splendid Elizabethan apparitions as would have been seen at the first performance: Lysander’s rich burgundy attire, Demetrius’ wood colours, Philostrate’s sky blue and Helena’s pale blue, as well as Theseus’ Indigo. Hippolyta too wears a rich saffron and Hernia earthier colours. These are all detailed period costumes with rapid multi-roling doffs and donning behind scenes. Darren Royston’s choreography comes to the fore in singing rounds but in certain blockings on a tiny space has to be sovereign.
An extended prologue and short epilogue enacts a dream in song – short snatches and interludes thread throughout. So the medium of communal singing becomes an act of lullaby, one of the key words set.
That said, it’s bright day and the platform witnesses a neatly-delineated set of prologues with Maximilian Marston’s Theseus and Will de Renzy-Martin’s Hippolyta looking forward to their wedding, after he defeats her in battle. One neat use of character-costume-change is to have Hippolyta leave in mute protest as Theseus pronounces reluctant doom on Joshua Glensiter’s Hermia for defying her father Egeus (James Keningale’s smaller role along with Philostrate, but his major one’s to come).
She’s chosen Lysander (Alex Wilson) over Demetrius (James Camp) who was originally promised to spanieling Helena (George Readshaw) who still pines for him. The tale’s told swiftly. The lovers flee, telling Helena who tells Demetrius whom she knows will follow for Hernia, an she with Demetrius.
This supposes one world. There’s three. One is the Athenian craftsmen rehearsing their show for the forthcoming royal marriage, and another unseen one with – as is traditional – Marston’s and de Renzy-Martin’s alter egos Oberon and Titania king and queen of the fairies. This pair have strong clarion voices in both roles. Marston’s has a patrician bearing a vertical instrument but flexible. De Renzy-Martin’s is expressive and stately, with no attempt to sound anything other than natural – a given in this approach. Keningale’s fleet, mercurial and substantial as Puck, making a substantial impression particularly as he tries to back-track and remedy his mistakes. Smaller roles are taken with aplomb and a lot of fronds by company members, but never guyed.
Wilson’s Lysander owns a fine cut-through voice, potentially stentorian but impressively lyrical too – he also plays Quince as a quick-witted, over-compensatory director. Camp has two big roles: as Demetrius he brings a proper hauteur with a saving passion, finally gentled into love for Helena. As Bottom he thrills to a broader humanity and a rather competent actor, strong-voiced and with a believable actor’s ego trying to take all the parts. There’s much fun with rival lions’ roars from him and Snug (sadly not attributed).
Glenister and Readshaw as Hermia and Helena enjoy furious friendship and imagined rivalry, plenty of balletic spurts and straining to get at each other – and Readshaw to escape Glenister’s talons (more long un-pared nails, like Snug’s).
The dispatch of this production in just two hours – though it’s the second-shortest play – is aided by elegant scene-changes, but it’s integral to the style. The great reveal is when Oberon and Titania, reconciled, step forward as their costumes are plucked off to reveal Theseus and Hippolyta. Though it’s a convention to double these parts, making a feature of it is magical and a little heart-stopping. It renders explicit the curious doubling of their lives, as if they already live a shadow one. Not logical of course, but this is indeed a dream.
Many schoolchildren lounge in the heat on matinees such as this. A robust-looking boy of fifteen or so walked past announcing confidently ‘it made me cry, the end’. Enough said. A production of enormous clarity, much heart and more than a pinch of magic. With that marvellous singing. Don’t miss it.