FringeReview UK 2017
Mark Brailsford directs, produces and as Bottom propels this Brighton Shakespeare Company at BOAT (Brighton Open Air Theatre). There’s swing dancing too, with a troupe of 1930s-style Lindy Hoppers. 1930s Period costumes contrast with the players’ full Elizabethan regalia, all designed and sourced by Sean Chapman. Anna Ryan-Flynn’s unfussy clean design uses few props, and these are lit and with sound by ‘Ethel Merman’ Merman sings too. At BOAT till August 6th then at Lewes Castle August 11th and 12th.
The middle of summer – if past Midsummer Day – there’s still streaks of magic blazing through squally evening weather as swing dancers hurl themselves onto a green stage. Brighton Open Air Theatre’s produced some sparkling works recently. A Midsummer Night’s Dream’s ideal for open air summer nights: The Brighton Shakespeare Company produces the most joyous, certainly sweetest Dream I can remember. Oh, and it’s Albion, not Athens, and Corydon is Croydon. Albion’s Greek after all.
Mark Brailsford directs, produces and as Bottom gives the lie to the line that the dream has no bottom to it. It’s a superbly-founded one, dizzy with luxury casting for small parts with a freshness of detail and whizz of physical acting that never lets up. There’s swing dancing too, as a troupe of 1930s-style Lindy Hoppers pile in at the interval and an entr’acte scene-change. Their period costumes run with the music and contrast with the players’ full Elizabethan regalia, all designed and sourced by Sean Chapman.
Anna Ryan-Flynn’s unfussy clean design uses few props, and these lit together with sound by – Ethel Merman! We get some Merman singing too; it’s a chuckly midsummer joke. A single tree twinkles fairy lights with the dusk.
There’s attack and finesse in Duncan Drury’s Theseus and Oberon, a virile, slightly more youthful figure than the occasionally orotund complacency we can get used to. In both roles and garbs Drury sets the headlong pace and spice. Kerren Garner’s Hippolyta is rightly queenly and here bears no resentment at a forced marriage. There’s none of the rancour some productions bring. Sexily imperious, Garner’s Titania exudes more dignity than the abandon some bring – but she rides her translated Ass with voluptuous persuasion, and her shock on discovering her new consort is treasurable. More, she allows Oberon to wind himself around her before reluctantly banishing him. The chemistry here is a spat, merely abating intense sexual attraction. It echoes that of Theseus and Hippolyta. There’s no reading against the text; it runs along the play’s sweet spot.
Amy Sutton’s Hernia is feisty, a little shorter than Sophie Flack’s Helena so essential for their dynamics, and ‘though she is little, she is fierce’. At key points Sutton exudes despair and blank dismay too, as well as authentic defiance of her father in the face of the court and death. Her ardency’s matched by an equally strong-voiced Lysander in Joshua Crisp: an active appealing youth with striking physicality. You believe him poised for elopement, just as you know Sutton will win the grass pillow-fight over premarital sex. Sutton’s moral firmness is all of a piece with her amorous clarity: she knows what she wants, and when.
By contrast Helena’s spaniel love can seem floppy-eared. Not here. Sophie Flack’s Helena is equally vocal, no pallid second despite her height and blonde tresses associated with the role. Flack really filling out her self-loathing and voicing ‘let me be your spaniel’ acts out the sexual reference with breath-taking clarity, earning her reluctant beau Demetrius’ shocked rebuke. Her ‘I am as ugly as a bear’ blazes out of face-twisted self-loathing.
Even amidst such happiness, its brightness casts shadows such as these, showing in both women not only Lysander’s glibness in ‘the path of true love ne’r did run smooth’ but momentarily how it wrinkles, withers and torques in half a night.
Stewart Barham’s role as Demetrius is always that of more snarl, less matinee to clean-cut Lysander; Barham delivers a less genteel, gnarled suitor, siding with Julian Parkin’s sour Egeus. ‘I’d rather feed his carcass to my hounds’ he blasts of his love rival and his hinted brutishness contrasts fitly: Helena’s violent doggy-style masochism is his inexorable goal. And then there’s more dog: Helena’s shoe-sniffing moment, quite apart from an accidental male snog collision and perimeter runs round the track to rival… well Sir Mo himself on the same night.
Between all four there’s a fluency of feeling, a blissful balletic comedy of misunderstanding and uproarious pratfalls. And did I mention fisticuffs – choreographed with the women’s catfight too? This one’s more odds-even for Helena for a change (and Helena’s plea ‘she was a vixen when she was at school’ was cut).
When they’re awarded their happiness by Theseus (awoken by Kristiansen’s real horn) the most heart-warming group hug confirms their underlying amity. You see – more vividly in this production than any I’ve known – their shared dream has bonded them all.
Spun into the Albion woods – they’re palpably around us in the park – Drury and Garner flicker into their more abandoned avatars, joined by Jack Kristiansen’s powerfully-voiced neatly-painted Puck. He’s also Philostrate, playing him like Malvolio full of menacing even mincing hesitation. As Puck he’s less boy, more boy man with fleet dispatch and vigour; edged with a dangerous entitlement that subtly challenges his master. There’s sharp chemistry between him and Drury’s Oberon, who’s swaggering enough to contain this Puck – for now.
Kristiansen mints such lines as ‘I’ll put a girdle round the earth in… oh forty minutes’ and you see him computing. There’s silvery self-delight bordering on menace in his pursuits, his freezing the Albionians as they flee, and applying juices to eyelids: you see his Philostrate’s frustrated flip-side. Perhaps the whole court’s dreaming.
This production is full of such felicities. There’s much ad-libbing, short one-liners to the audience who host players as they suddenly sit and shuffle amongst them.
Parkin returns as Peaseblosssom and as a piping retiring Flute-Thisbe the very antipodes of his Egeus snarl, near tears. Nearly every doubling role is neatly calibrated as a total contrast. Here too we enjoy further magnificent acts. Jules Craig a timorous Snout – and Wall and Lion – steals a few scenes in her shuddery panic at causing affright. As Mustardseed though she’s Miss Whiplash, twitting Kristiansen and making much of her whip. She’s dangerous and kinky.
Craig’s one of those headliners who enjoys teamwork, as does Sarah Mann (an exceptional Lady Macbeth recently) whose Quince is marvellously prissy, as overly interventionist as Bottom is over-explanatory. As Cobweb though she’s an abandoned flapper, the flirty fairy plucking Puck to her own rhythm. Her work as assistant director is seamlessly interwoven, though she and Brailsford have worked in such felicities with their cast that nailing their appearances is simply taken for granted.
Brailsford both humanly commands as the overly-voiced Bottom gifted with some panache but shows in character an amateur hopelessly ill-educated in stagecraft. The knack is to hint at why Bottom’s held in esteem by the Rude Mechanicals – whose rehearsal scenes and later fright at Bottom translated elicit tenderness with laughter – and show his equally inept sense of the fourth wall. Brailsford doesn’t indulge his ass-ness as some, but gives it a translated truth. Sean Chapman’s provided the Mechanicals with blue-and-white football fan gear, felicitously more Seagulls than Albion. This is the Brighton Shakespeare Company.
The finale’s not to spoil. It’s the most felicitous interpolation of a speech I’ve seen in this work. Watch out for the Moon too. There are a very few favourite lines not included, this being the third shortest of the plays, but it still comes in at two and a half hours with a twenty-minute interval. It’s fresh, certainly but also enormously warm-hearted with vigorously worked-in (and out) detail, its physicality using all of BOAT’s space with vigour and absolute clarity. The disagreeables in Keats’ phrase evaporate like a dream, and you feel the ‘silver bow new-bent in heaven’ has unloosed a shower of happiness.