Brighton Year-Round 2021
Directed by Mimi Goddard, Assistant Director Tess Gill, Musical Director Liz Woodward. Lighting and Sound Design, and Lighting and Sound Operation Beverley Grover, Costumes Mimi Goddard and Michelle Speller.
Stage Manager Michelle Speller, ASM Rosalind Caldwell
Poster and Programme Design Steven Adams. Photography Miles Davies.
Thanks to Patti Griffiths, Elly McDade, Geoffrey Bowden and Friends of Queens Park, Pippa Smith and Friends of St Ann’s Well Gardens.
An actor-director who’s seen productions of this play from Brook to Hytner and toured the USA with it, said, anticipating this production: ‘It’s a play even more magical outdoors.’
So it proves and – as she again pointed out – far more than that. Though we’ve had two spellbinding in-theatre performances of BLT’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, it’s a production geared for the outdoors. First at the Royal Spar Nursery School Queen’s Park on August 26-28, or perhaps most translated of all, the Enclosed or Scented Garden, St Ann’s Wells Gardens on 2-4 September which s here I caught up with it again on its final outing.
This just after BLT’s The Twits 11th-14th August at BOAT. BLT’s chameleon output remains stupefying.
Directed by Mimi Goddard this is a Dream above all impelled by velocity, even ferocity, and clarity. Pared back ruthlessly it hurtles by in under one hour forty-five including an interval. Times at St Ann’s are identical but a few more words seem to have crept in at the end of sentences, although the edited text remains unaltered. The difference is breadth and breath.
The ensemble, many of whom come to the BLT and Shakespeare for the first time, abandon themselves headlong as if squeezed through a venturi-tube of transformation. It’s dizzying. I’m not sure we all wake.
Goddard’s aided by assistant director Tess Gill, and for the BLT – the outdoors set too echoes the original set design by Steven Adams like a magical absence with the pavilion and those extraordinary lighting effects and an overarching dusk. The effect is magical to the echo. I’ve seen few more spellbinding Dreams than these, and I include other outdoor productions – none of which can touch this one,
Here’s where lighting and sound scores too, all designed and operated by Beverley Grover, put out on speakers. As you’d expect, liminal blues and greens track sylvan madness, brighter russet effects shine on the Mechanicals; a white Grecian clarity on the court scenes presided over by Theseus. I won’t even enumerate soundtrack items, though mainly contemporary, fleeting, pointed.
For costumes Mimi Goddard and Michelle Speller pursue a school uniform pink/blue effect for the lovers, rustic browns, red, emerald greens, orange overalls for the Mechanicals and natty though not conventional formal attire for the court. Dark Brunswick green catsuits of magical folk, mixed with whites, are nothing to the wonderful colour-shifting orbs they carry on: lighting and costumery work seamlessly as set and lighting. School’s in, a little witchery invades the grounds.
This production’s a triumph for magic, and the Mechanicals’ world. There’s some parts here I’ve hardly seen better taken anywhere, and that includes Hytner. And a little of Hytner’s production unmistakably enters here (even if you’ve not seen it, it’s entered the culture), though in different ways and in one case with a success Hytner would envy and wonder why he hadn’t thought of it.
Goddard’s editing works well in cutting some unnecessary if attractive speeches. And she makes some inspired transpositions and whole character elisions that work brilliantly. Less happy sometimes in cutting lines where refrains are cut, removing a pith of character, particularly for the lovers.
For instance Hermia’s plea to Demetrius: ‘If thou hast slain Lysander in his sleep,/Being o’er shoes in blood, plunge in the deep, And kill me too.’ That last sentence cut takes the sting of desperation from Hermia. Demetrius’ own snarl ‘I’d rather give his carcass to my hounds’ goes and with it each character’s kick of self-annihilation – or annihilating rage. This comedy aches with being so near terror. Its magic is strong medicine.
This is the first play Shakespeare wrote after Romeo and Juliet and the shock of their absoluteness is just transformed into comedy. Shakespeare you feel needed to spell himself from it. But the lover’s madness is (still, after R&J) all compact with the poet and madman, as Theseus is sometimes allowed to say in Act V (often cut now as here). We need to feel that. Theseus’ ‘Good morrow friends, St Valentine’s day is past’ is also part-cut where it doesn’t harm to leave it in and lend Theseus a tang of ironic eyebrow-raising. Overall, because of where and sometimes how lines are sawn off, I’d plead: give us fifteen more minutes and no-one would walk, not even children, but feel involved with the lovers.
Before we get to huge praise – down to Goddard and the actors – the sublunary lovers like many others must be praised for tackling this first touch of Shakespeare in such an intense immersion. And by the end of this run they’ve grown! This is yet another example of BLT’s company feel. Though new, the quartet quickly absorb it and a longer run has worked its well…magic.
The Lovers own the hardest task since characterisation as shown is pared back. So Demetrius seems as benign as Lysander, and might be interchangeable – and that’s not true. They’re dressed too in blue and pink school uniforms, and unisex too, so no glorious drag was harmed in the making of this (often glorious) production. Strop and teenage rebellion are in the air.
Demmi-lee Smith is new to Shakespeare but though young, not to the stage. Her Lysander is appealing and fluent, darting and scudding too. Like all actors here – a great tribute to Goddard with such a fresh cast – she’s ideally clear and delivers her lines with the feroce asked of her, if cheekily, as she explains. Seeing her now shows her leap cubits ahead. Like all the lovers they use their space with rush and passion – not straying outside the microphones arc – and Smith has learnt an ardour to their pleas, convincing in snatching opportunity. Altogether a real lover active, defiant, tender, and of course occasionally spitefully conclude. Smith’s emotionally amplified but also developed.
Her Hermia isn’t as lucky because Hermia’s sheer fright is muted from her text. Bradley Coffey isn’t very short, though happily not tall, doing his best to be low and little, hunching himself down, hangdog. Raising voice to a high pitch means expressiveness is narrowed, pathos can evaporate. Again his lines are as cleanly delivered as they can be and he deserves praise for staying in role so steadfastly. Shorn of the usual emotive hooks (even maiden modesty for clear reasons) Coffey exudes a very winning wretchedness – as is needed, for with the quartet it’s Hermia who should break your heart. Coffey’s able though to render here a Hermia more physically active and max Hermia’s plight to a physical terror.
Daniel Carr’s dashing clear-voiced Demetrius is of a man untouched by the usual dark since his text on the whole is bright. There’s altercation at the start, where Smith’s ‘do you marry him’ riposte visibly stings Carr. There’s more than a touch of Lysander about him, an open-faced warmth too, and his delivery is crystal. Carr can darken and you so wish he might cut his teeth on feeding carcasses to hounds. Carr here again grows more querulous on the lines left to him to snarl in, and has raised his game when he was already strong.
Chloe Bettridge-Radford’s Helena stunningly looks a Helena, an unpainted maypole and provoker of envy. Her adamantine delivery, ‘stroppy’ she calls it, is fleet and unfaltering, her height more than a match for Coffey who crouches a little to scratch out her eyes. Bettridge-Radford’s ’she was a vixen when she went to school’ is a joker this time since they’re still in school and the line’s enriched. There’s an edge of panic now, though, and a more vulnerable Helena that really shows how this Helena has grown . When she declares ‘I am as ugly as a bear’ her voice goes down on the last word, quite audibly in a shudder of disgust. There’s places where she gives over to emotion and it’s like a tiny crack of the heart.
Bettridge-Radford has reduced the head-girl crossness that was part of her brief: the truth of Helena has begun to take over. Bettridge-Radford can perplex the time and sheer bafflement is Helena’s key. Whereas others rage, she feels raged upon and knows not why, only then finds her own.
Against this lucid quartet the role-doubling is deliciously effected. You feel too the magical and mechanical worlds somehow work against too fierce a headlong rush through the night; the more they make roles their own, the more magic we get. This naturally is what Goddard aims for and can only be born of experienced actors.
Thus wondrously-voiced Leigh Ward, consummate in Shakespeare too, is urbane Theseus, though a little less generous since he won’t give Hermia the nunnery option but death only. Goddard’s daringly done away with contemporary accretions of angry Amazonian forced marriage (which often start stroppy and end soppy without telling us why) and taken us back to a happier realm. Theseus is now a little less angry – the production’s rationale – but finds in Titania a luxury of voicing; a seductiveness of feel and timbre that suits him wholly.
Mari Polonen’s Hippolyta isn’t the glaring Amazon latterly seen but sexy and frankly eager to bed Theseus as he her, in the opening moments, in her dark clingy gown. It’s refreshing. Polonen’s gracious and takes on Philostrate’s lines – a neat clever elision of Goddard’s so all the court flummery’s gifted to the underused Hippolyta, and lends her asperity.
Polonen’s Oberon points up all the imperious anger with Puck and Titania you could wish for. Her command of the lines rasps superbly, and only in those where lyricism breathes out as in ‘I know a bank where the wild thyme grows’ do you miss that wistful elegiac reaching-out and wonder that the greats bring to this in different ways. There’s now a panto cackle and Polonen seems to have lost a little of the wonder and delicacy she showed at BLT. It’s outdoors and this is just a slight niggle. Again, this is essentially Goddard’s choice and this is still an imposing Oberon, one workable of magic.
Katie Newman’s Puck (seen in June in More Grimm’s Tales, like Ward, before that in Sense and Sensibility) is one of the three greatest highlights, with Polonen still not far behind – though the Mechanicals and fairies have really grown too. Here we’re on an exalted plane. Newman’s nuanced playfulness is born from her, her shimmery movement and voicing of a piece, her thoughts in the moment and speaking to the point, on point. It’s as if she’s just thought of it, and her reaction to Polonen’s wrath is, well Puckish and flinching – you feel she’s a bit vulnerable. There’s a delight in devilry, her non-commissioned fun. There’s also a balletic delicacy. Newman has done terrific things at BLT; she surpasses herself here.
There’s much theatre fun with the outdoors audience too. To watch Newman in moonlight is one of the great privileges of theatre. Her final benediction as an honest Puck is wondrous and the end of the production is literally spellbinding.
Holly Everett as Snug and Moth makes a real tremulous slow-of-study Snug frighted of her own shadow, and consummate in her tiny tole and not tiny lion’s costume, as well as the alighting Moth. Again she makes something huge of little snug now, and in moonlight is both tremulous and tremendous. Rosalind as Snout and Cobweb makes a very neat yet downright Snout – her Wall’s a costumed delight – and bright Cobweb. Again ther’s even more clarity and definition, more downrightness.
Phaedra Danelli as Starveling the tailor and the larger fairy role of Mustardseed is again the soul of rustical disquiet. She adds a new shiver too. All these parts are consummately taken, though pride of place has to go to the second-largest part of the play-within-a-play – beautifully directed and rendered as an ensemble. This is Chantelle Winder who’s only stepped away from The Twits a week back and here as Peaseblossom she flits to the needs of her new, temporary master.
As Flute she triumphs – a stunning performance in the role of the put-upon Mechanical with ‘a beard coming on’ who doesn’t want the role but who – upstaging the lead quite inadvertently – finds an inner truth and after all the patronising court laughter reduces them in some performances to startled tears, and us with them.
Winder’s Flute looks and becomes the part in that blue-shift from bathos to tragedy, the moment Flute finds she’s a true actor and reduces the court to silence. Here there’s such little time but Winder makes her mark. Here in the moonlight she plays up a boy’s part by whizzing round and screaming to different angles. Her timing here is razor-sharp and naturally her ‘affect’ trumps Bottom’s Thisbe.
Kate McGann’s Bottom is the lead upstaged but here McGann triumphs in role – though Winder and she play off each other blissfully and there’s an added oomph to her outdoors persona. In throwaway looks and underplayed moments, in roaring and purring, from braggadocio actor and noisiest Mechanical to Titania-charmed mortal, Bottom lives in the moment and you see McGann’s stand-up credentials spark as this Bottom is translated into pure gold. Such now-hackneyed lines as ‘make an ass of me’ are invested with discovery, expositions of sleep become an erotic foreplay of relapsing into Ward’s Titania-winding arms. Even a bit farther off the delicacy of this is literally ravishing and of course, comic.
As Pyramus McGann brings the house down as Antonio Banderas’ Puss in Boots and a kind of well, dark violet catsuit. It’s quite stunning, an OTT sense of Bottom’s failing to grasp character, which character McGann is consummate in. McGann reinvents Bottom and isn’t just clear but lived-through.
Chris Berry’s Egeus is a snarling old cove, almost psychotic, and Egeus is never too far from that. The finger-jabbing is positively alarming and as often in this production one feels the anger’s amped up. As put-upon Lancastrian Quince Berry’s a completely different man, and wonderful as clear-headed but bumblingly-directing schoolmaster. His Quince is even more ideal outdoors. If this is a school, then Egeus should be struck off – as almost never happened.
This is a Dream that’s grown – the Lovers in particular, and even the superb Mechanicals and Fairies have developed strikingly from their already first-rate selves. Despite a few minor reservations particularly about the text which remains far too crimped, if this is your first Dream you’d not so much never forget it – I never will – but judge all Dreams by it, however many you see.
Goddard’s wrought wonders here, with a magical and Mechanical world up there with the best. Her finest gift is to allow some actors to give transcendent performances up there with London’s finest. There’s no doubt this production has fairy gold stamped on it. The lovers need only breathe a little more, and I though too late to add a few lines, there’s ben enough time to allow these talented young actors to find the love through those runs of this wide-awake production. Either way, out in the slant air this is more the Dream than I ever dreamt it could be.