Brighton Year-Round 2022
Directed by Shaun Hughes, Set Designer and Build David Rankin, Light and Sound Design and Special Effects Trevor Morgan. Costumes Kate Palmer and the Wardrobe Team.
Stage Manager Joanne Cull. ASMs Estelle Carpenter, Chance Stoner, Claire Chapman, David Rankin, Jacqui Freeman and Susan Heather
Production Photography Keith Gilbert and Phil Gazzard.
Till July 16th.
Sometimes in a theatre company there’s a conscious change of generations, a gear shift, a way of speaking, an exhilaration whetted against the vocal brio of experienced cast-members. This is one of them.
In A Midsummer Night’s Dream there’s always a sense of young love set against the mature one of the court (setting aside Hippolyta’s marriage by force majeure); and, to an extent, the Mechanicals, well past their own first flushes. That’s accentuated in this production where the lovers’ quartet and Puck are cast with young people usually not out of their teens. And much older Mechanicals – who naturally double as earthy fairies.
If youth and maturity’s a game of two unequal halves, director Shaun Hughes also places the interval unusually: in a first bewilderment of lovers, not later. There’s little reference to other productions and it falls to David Rankin to not only design but build the sparse set single-handed, with minimal distraction for the clarity that follows.
Downstage the area’s painted in foliage tones and there’s an ingenious run-up of leaves for the forest, where thin-veiled curtains give on to a monster gibbous supermoon, painted with Deco spots on a vast off-white disc, clipped with a navy-blue eclipse.
A central dais, often jumped on, serves no obvious function than marriage (I had wondered if this was designed as a Tudor interlude, but no). Trevor Morgan’s special effects (the pop-music baffles) involves a vivid use of smoke violet-illumined to striking effect, though it happens intermittently, not always dramatically until the confusion scene where it kicks in wondrously. Being violet like the drug-flowers, it might have been apposite to puff some when they’re applied too. It’s ingenious, marking another technical advance.
Finally there’s a theatrical coup at the triple wedding: a cascade of white balloons. It’s a lovely touch, as is the running-up foliage and smoke. It’s a lot to put on mainly one person though, leaves nowhere to hide magic. Shakespeare often invokes minimal staging; it’s a case of calling on three good things.
This is a modern-dress Dream, where Kate Palmer’s team create quiet dress till the star-burst of the wedding. More, lovers are differentiated. Helena’s elegant in blueish white, Hermia’s orange-floral, Lysander teen-casual with specs: tall handsomeness translates him; Demetrius athletic, more dutifully conventional: and their wedding outfits echo this. The more formal and informal couplings accentuate their characters: Ascot, Glastonbury.
Tim Telford’s Lysander and Adelaide Barden’s Helena strike first. Telford has the quick and intelligence of his speaking, a clarity showing he radiates Lysander as well as looks him: willowy in his stage movements, he’s ardent, vehement in confusion, but winning. Barden’s Helena is no less striking, every speeding-up and slowing of her speech every snatch of thought is apparent in her. Sometimes she marks off a gesture using fingers and a sashaying hand semaphore: it’s beguiling, though shouldn’t harden into a reflex.
You soon notice Harry Covell’s quiet Demetrius is both more sullen and working to a different rationale: his already-compromised feelings slowly break out of convention, especially in the latter joshing with Lysander (petulant hostility, never serious, turns to brotherhood) and reveals a Demetrius of clarity and stature. Carmen Dupre’s Hermia is almost amazed and knows not what to say, dazzled by the wildness around her. Dupre plays it straight, as if overawed, and is still finding her personal rhythm. It’s a pity she was robbed of such lines as ‘use me as your spaniel’ which underscores Hermia’s abjection.
Logan Brewer’s Puck, apart from drawing attention to the hollow dais by jumping on it, is a delight. A cross between Adam and the Ants (a dark streak of greasepaint crosses his eyes) and a 70s gold TV host jacket, he’s an unbridled delight. Mischievous, vibrantly active, a gymnast bursting out of the confines, he has the rationale of Puck. All these actors show huge potential, and need only more direction, particularly in verse-speaking.
Both Theseus and his alter ego Oberon have to centre any production. Chris Parke is the drive and consciousness of this one. His verse-speaking’s an object lesson; his gestures warm and economical, radiant with authority, generosity, and as Oberon, froward anger and devilment.
As Theseus he’s all reason with none of the imperative threat this part can bring, and it seems right: the generous ruler we have to believe is benign. His Oberon shadows this, an essentially benevolent fairy who wants to right lovers’ wrongs and with an investment in court (the bouncing Amazon Hippolyta as Titania jealously apostrophises her). Capable of revenge though, and that little Indian boy? Well, that’s for the darkest of productions. Parke exudes Theseus’ and Oberon’s self-knowledge, a self-overhearing you can see working in both, particularly Oberon’s knowing when to stop.
Alan Carter’s flustered father of Hermia, Egeus, and later fussy court official Philostrate is a delight. He apprehends all the inchoate fury of the one and snobbery of the other. He sometimes goes into overdrive as Egeus: but he’s a savage exhilaration in petty tyranny.
Victoria Brewer as Hippolyta and Titania certainly looks the part (delicious green chiffon-shawl effects in the latter), and has a quick sense of how to speak and in her case, break up lines to suit breaks in apprehension – say, just waking – or anger. Hers is a lyrical part and again some arc of speaking lyrically needs attending. So ‘What angel wakes me from my flowery bed’ reflects a vocal rainbow arc. Contemporary breakings-up won’t convey the wonder. Brewer’s alive though, and if occasionally mannered is blissfully free of any woodenness.
Anthony Bannister’s Quince hesitates. Sometimes it’s funny, though he hesitates quite a bit and it’s naughty as the joke flees. His true strengths come in his appallingly mangled set-speeches for the court, his rustic schoolmaster who dealing with Bottom knows he treads a tightrope over a prima donna, and well-conveyed fustian.
Robert Hamilton’s Bottom is what you’d expect of this consummate Shakespearean: and more. And it’s in the Mechanicals scene where Hughes lets these experienced actors improvise ad-libs and test out the tenor of their troupe; it works too. Hamilton not only hams up the faux-grandeur of his set speeches, he adds original touches as to his donkey appendages, a quick-change from verse to wit to flummoxed swain. His verse-speaking of rude wonderment is a counterpart to Parke’s lese-majesté elegance.
Simon Hellyer’s Flute is almost an overkill. Hellyer, another consummate Shakespearean, is dangerous: you never know where he might flail next, and vocally he’s a dream of clarity. Here he has to overtop Bottom in Thisbe’s death, to show involuntarily the power of theatre: seeping through rude device into a shock of tragedy. He manages the effect, not with pathos, but falsetto aplomb as he collapses. His small part of Mustardseed is almost menacingly accommodating.
Darren Heather’s part as Snout is one might say all roaring, avuncular in his hi-vis jacket, all rough bonhomie, and fine verse speaker. Chloe Franks reaches a starry apogee in a lion rap, where she belts out a witty verse-making. It’s a memorable coup and the finest original touch of this production. Watch out for the paws and her brief avatar as Peaseblossom. Carter returns as an able Cobweb.
Trish Richings’ Snug and Moonshine (catching a slow tempo from Bannister) and a delicious ad-lib emits hapless rays as someone superbly out of their depth, radiating little beams of hurt. She’s also an evanescent Moth.
There’s an exciting sense of being at the cusp of a new generation, where young talent benefits from experienced actors like Parke and Hamilton (in particular), Carter and Hellyer who set the pace. Listening to Parke speaking his soliloquies isn’t a million girdles from hearing the way Alan Howard spoke his Oberon. I doubt there’s much higher praise than that, and we saw and heard a masterclass: offstage and on.
There might be conceptual unevenness here, and with young actors it needs more direction – and verse-speaking. Hughes must sense this and has cast some wonderful new talent. If only, one feels, this could tour as some Brighton Little Theatre productions now do, with more time to live parts, there’s no knowing where this Dream might end.