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Brighton Year-Round 2020

Low Down

Directed by Joanna Rosenfeld again with a crisply-observed 20 minute interval. Music Director Seth Morgan with Morgan, Kirsty Geddes, Alissandra Henderson and Katarina Henderson performing musicians. Designed by Conor Baum and Joanna Rosenfeld with the support of Gladrags. Production Management Joanna Rosenfeld, with team Saskia Monteiro, Faith McNeill, Tabitha Fawcett Fry. Watch out for OFS online and there’s a trembling in the air. OFS Unlocked will be back!


The sixth and last. And it’s… A Midsummer Night’s Dream. In a soft September near midway between Midsummer and Twelfth Night it always seemed a toss-up which one it might be. Request for old pillows proves a soft-landing prophesy.

The One Fell Swoop Project’s Zoom Shakespeare zoomed out five weeks ago on August 8th into St Ann’s Wells Sensory Garden in a devout consummation of its 17 lockdown zooms so far. In a word, Unlocked. Joanna Rosenfeld and Conor Baum alternate as directors and actors in a ‘micro-festival’, this being the sixth and final outdoor production of Shakespeare, the audience strictly distanced and with all amenities on hand.

Actors have 24 hours to con parts meet up and read through. Everything’s fluid, the spirit of OFS with its spontaneous leaps into abysms of inspiration is preserved. The Zoom traversal of all Shakespeare and apochrypha might hopefully recommence later this autumn.

Though modestly priced it’s also a charity event. There is though no gala about it. This is first-rate outdoor Shakespeare.

Though one of Shakespeare’s briefest texts, A Midsummer Night’s Dream from 1595-6 following straight after Romeo and Juliet is one of the most lyrically packed; sheer stage action whirls it here to two hours twenty minutes, with light edits.

Seth Morgan has arranged a suite of ‘dream’ songs starting with Mama Cass’s rendition of ‘Dream a Little Dream’ sung by Deborah Kearne and Seth Morgan, accompanied by Morgan and Kirsty Geddes. Later two musicians play on wine glasses to induce fairyland in shimmering sonics. And there’s more. For a scratch orchestra this production surpasses itself. There’s a reprise at the end played by Geddes on the clarinet with the company humming and singing along. Morgan, Geddes, Alissandra Henderson and Katarina Henderson perform. There’s fragile miracles ahead.

Designed by Conor Baum and Director Joanna Rosenfeld, the colour and costume-coding of white, pale rose and blue on grass casts spells. A large white moon drifts aloft near the pavilion, and around the cordoned actors’ space four beds or white sofas invite sleep, blown with pillows. Pyjama’d actors – with a gilded licence to Theseus and Hippolyta – shadow moonshine in patched sunlight. As gloaming rises, the air turns stiller for voices.

Ross Gurney-Randall’s Theseus cuts through the opening with a ringing bronzed bass, full of command pomp and circumstance. Gurney-Randall too matches this with an alacrity in following the truth of his voice with the right cutting airs. Later he allows an avuncular licence to the Mechanicals’ efforts, defending them with a purring benediction.

He’s answered by Sharon Drain’s Hippolyta in a silvery acquiescence she dispatches with elegance and an elfin delicacy that suggests her avatar, not as Titania, but someone more delicate. No wrenched Amazon here to set off the train of magic and transference of courage from Hippolyta to Hermia, a practice started in the Globe’s 2013 production and taken to greatest lengths in Nick Hytner’s Bridge production last year. There’s a wink if not forty here to that landmark with the beds; though rationale and dynamic are wildly different. Here Theseus and Oberon, Hippolyta and Titania are not doubled roles. It lends a difference, an absolute divide of temporal and magical agency. For there’s a more human one.

First Duncan Henderson’s Egeus plays the edgy parental tyrant to Lexi Pickett’s Hermia to some purpose, because the most inexplicable transformations are mortal. Henderson seethes with the sharp articulation regulars expect of him, even in what’s normally a minor role. But wait for Act V. And behold gender fluidity attending on the four lovers.

Conor Baum’s Philostrate has much to do latterly, but in hunting-pink scarf and on points, he points up Philostrate’s snobby courtier with memorable hauteur. Philostrate comes into his own in Act V, miming each rejected play, dissing the Mechanicals like flies. Baum too translates into something rich and strange.

Pickett’s admirable as Hermia, balancing pleas with resolve, resignation with ardour. Defiant, she spins on pathos to despair; threatens to run mad. Pickett also neatly points comedy – pushing away her amorous Lysandra, turning on all three of her companions as imagined taunters.

Rosanna Bini’s Lysandra is another gender swap and here we see in her treatment of Pickett a mix of tender, ardent – definitely suggesting with ‘one bosom’ they’re already wed – but also wincingly cruel once the mistaken streak-eye potion’s worked through. Bini’s Lysandra is a headlong youth: she plunges away or towards objects of desire: a deluded gallantry.

Chris Gates’ Demetrius snarls with a light petulance in pursuing her. Gates is vocally agile with a clear head-voice. He’s not as unpleasant as Demetrius can be, until Ben Darlington’s Helenus lollops after him. To those not familiar, this is normally Helena. Gates’ Demetrius is rougher with this Helenus than most Helenas, at one moment electric with danger.

When Darlington pleads ‘use me as your spaniel’ on his knees to Gates’ Demetrius he rends the air with a fawning eroticism that makes more of this than nearly any Helena I’ve seen. Darlington’s range transcends the bathos in say Present Laughter as Gary Essednine’s foppish fan grasps his knees. This cleaves with tremor cordis. With Pickett’s nails threatening to pluck out his eyes Darlington leaps as if terrified by a mouse and proves his legs are longer, to run away.

When all’s resolved, then true love here proclaims: two men marry, and two women. That for a family audience too, is something that theatre brings as naturally as singing.

The Mechanicals wear a horizontal stripey set of pyjamawear, with bedcaps. It’s as if they’ve all met in their sleep to rehearse, a sensation pervading much of the production.

Katey Ann Fraser’s Prologue and Quince are excellent, a finicky nervous OCD type – and a bit miffed. You feel for Quince when the triumphant notice of the play’s preferring is granted curiously to Bottom (one of those moments that gloriously suggests authorial disdain for ‘how?’). It’s thoroughly enjoyable when Fraser makes much of lines like ‘if we do offend thee, ‘tis with our good will’ and other malapropisms as Prologue.

Ben Baeza’s Flute is properly shrill, and as Thisbe doesn’t overtop Nick Bottom’s Pyramus in their death scenes so much as stand in dignified contrast. Grace Leeder’s Snout seems nicely discombobulated as Wall puffed up with pillows like a bouncy castle managing deftly for someone temporarily six foot square. Alissandra Henderson’s Starveling looks tearfully affronted as Moon, caught up in court jibes and managing a slim pathos guarding her light.

Baum’s Snug is literally a roaring success using the length and breadth of the space at one point. Baum brings out the slow-of-study plea of Snug too, guying it artfully with a touchingly absurd speech to the court ladies.

Peta Taylor’s Bottom is the play’s lynchpin, where fairy meets human, where Taylor prima-donnaring chases after every part Fraser’s Quince won’t give her, to the moment of translation (a nice suggestion of ass-head) and response to Kearne’s ‘out of this wood do not desire to go’ gambit. Taylor’s vocal control is felicitous, braggadocio or filled with wonder at the fairy troop, quickly learning to command them. Taylor – who suggests a waking with wonder and comedy – touches Bottom at most points one might say; in scarlet too.

Seth Morgan’s Oberon imposes a musically dark and light voice, both rich and suddenly in the tenor range where necessary. There’s something Prospero-like about him (indeed Morgan played Prospero in a memorable production of Nicholas Quirke’s in 2016). He can sound off tetchily ‘you have mistook’ to hapless Puck, but gets the addiction to cunning and device: ‘This works out better than I could devise’ he says straight without emphasis on the personal pronoun, more impersonally on ‘devise’ which lends a certain grandeur from a petulant brief.

Deborah Kearne’s Titania in pale rose is imperious, quarrelsome and decisive: ‘We are their parents and originals’ earning Morgan’s growly ‘Do you amend it then’. Vocally Kearne in her pale rose enjoys the termagant before turning lover. Here her deep-voiced command spells regal lust; as if this Titania could take the head off any Ass. Equally Kearne’s ‘oh how I do loathe his visage now’ swoops vocally down to a wonderful chest-register to contrast her earlier ‘how I do love thee’ with its frolicsome accents. Kearne manages protectiveness of her fairy troop whilst banishing them for a night of lust.

The troop too are nicely detailed. Baeza’s industrious Cobweb, Drain’s understandably nervous Mustardseed, Leeder’s nicely fidgety Mole, Alissandra Henderson’s gossamer-light Peaseblossom, deftly done, and Katarina Henderson’s equally flittered additional Fairy. These sisters however enjoy one remarkable duet.

The latter two at one moment before the revels perform on two violins an arrangement of Shostakovich’s melancholy Waltz from his Jazz Suite No. 2. It’s an achingly lyrical moment, exquisitely rendered – Shostakovich’s bittersweet melody’s not easy to etch. The Hendersons manage it without ever hitting a sour flat.

Kirsty Geddes’ Puck is a delight from start to finish. Girt with a floweret headband and a Chinese blue and patterned robe, this Puck is a clarinettist who plays the gazoo too – thus somewhat proleptic of Act V, where Hippolyta’s scorn takes a child’s recorder as simile. Gazoos aren’t far off that, and Geddes delights in its puckish irreverence.

Geddes accompanies at key points, but plays a cascade of songs tripping round the space and when chided, draggingly slow. Geddes musicianship is one of the production’s songful glories but so is her Puck. Interacting primarily with Morgan, she tweaks and twits even him. Geddes holds monologue and spells equally; her witty light silvery-blue presence sets the seal on this production.

Except… Henderson’s Egeus is back and Morgan winds round a guitar accompaniment. Egeus, overborne by Theseus’ hunting party and its discovery of sleeping lovers (all widely spaced in this production) undergoes the most heart-stopping translation of all.

Taking up Nat King Cole’s ‘Nature Boy’ Henderson sings ‘The greatest thing you’ll ever learn/is to love and be loved in return’ and as he does so his daughter Hermia and her true love Lysandra run up and he embraces them both. It’s unforgettable. If this is 24 hours, let’s have excess of such rough epiphanies. It underscores this production’s magic as rooted in human love, and its awakenings.

Rosenfeld’s direction for this space is now distinct: use of diagonals and geometric layout – here, the beds – and the physicality of actors. Thus the company hurtle the full length and breadth where necessary, but are capable of knowing when to stand still, let their presence speak as well as their voices. Rosenfeld directs from the inside out, as an acclaimed actor who’s worked on productions and now more fully as director too. Her gift for shaping an outdoor vision with such clean lines makes one long to see what she might achieve in an indoor theatre.

After six productions, we too in the audience might leave the gardens musing at miraculous collisions, the occasional false start, the way a company attunes as one. Small limitations of quick study and an outdoor space are so often transcended you might wonder what these pinball-ricocheted companions might achieve indoors or with more time. What’s so mercurial though mustn’t be lost. It’s imperative too OFS stay together, and there’s ways you can visit and support them. Out of a wrecked summer we have a theatrical arcady on our doorstep. Let’s cherish it.