A Midsummer Night’s Dream (As You Like It)

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In Stage Fright, Animals and Other Theatrical Problems, Nicholas Ridout writes about the moments when theatre breaks down. His book investigates all those glitches – the stutter, the laugh, the unexpected interruption of a creature on stage – when the theatrical machinery temporarily halts and we see the true nature of the event unfolding before us. In Ridout’s words, “something of our relationship to labour and to leisure is felt every time the theatre undoes itself around the encounter between worker and consumer”.

Dmitry Krymov’s take on A Midsummer Night’s Dream – or more accurately, on its play within a play, Pyramus and Thisbe – looks a lot like Ridout’s thesis writ large. This is not really about love or fairies or Shakespeare; this is about theatre. Theatre in all its pretending, its failure, its illusion, its beauty, its exquisite silliness.

It is also theatre as work. It is more than just comedy that has drawn Krymov and his company to the Mechanicals in Shakespeare’s play; they also represent, as their collective title suggests, the labour that goes into stage illusion. In a programme note, Krymov says that he couldn’t see himself in either the courtly or the magical worlds of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. “I am not a fairy,” he explains, “I am a craftsman.” Theatre is not magic conjured from thin air – it is craft.

And yet …

Recently, while interviewing playwright Alistair McDowall, we talked about the idea of theatre as magic trick. We agreed that the reason this particular analogy works so well is that it suggests both the thrill of illusion and the strings that make everything work. As audience members, we at once want to see the workings – the workings that we know to be there in the background – and to be taken in by what we see before us. To contradict myself, theatre is magical, but magical in the sense of a magic trick; we know that skill and work goes into it.

As in the usual staging of the play within a play in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Krymov’s production positions us both as the audience of Pyramus and Thisbe and as external observers of another audience: the courtiers the Mechanicals have been charged with entertaining. In this imagining they are haughty and distracted, checking messages on their smartphones and interjecting with their derision, disapproval and occasional outrage. If we see a picture of ourselves, it’s not a flattering one.

As for the players, they’re a suitably ragtag bunch, trussed up in scruffy black tie like children playing dress-up. Their set and props, meanwhile, are crudely thrown together, even down to the sawdust coated scaffold on which their audience are directed to sit. There’s no forgetting that these are labourers and that the show they (eventually) present is as much a construction as their wonky, makeshift auditorium.

So it’s all the more extraordinary when we do, by some strange theatrical alchemy, get drawn into the tale being told. After a lengthy introduction, lightly touching on ideas of art, entertainment and intention, Krymov’s Mechanicals finally get around to the story of Pyramus and Thisbe, who take the form of two towering, mismatched puppets. Pyramus has a portrait for a head; Thisbe balances precariously on one ballet shoe and one boot. They are fragile and ridiculous – not all that different from their human operators, then, or the theatrical event itself.

At first, what charm us are the tricks. Acrobats balance and somersault; the Mechanicals’ dog – the indisputable star of the show – even turns a backflip. We are at the circus, operating in an economy of gasps and giggles, occasionally ruptured by an interjection that causes a stumble, a mistake. Then something unexpected happens. Under just the right light, with just the right musical accompaniment, there is something incredibly tender about this pair of ungainly figures, and something happens that pretty much never happens in other Dreams: we feel for these star-crossed lovers. But these moments are brittle – easily snapped.

One sequence from a long procession of images stands out. In the glow of their initial ardour, Pyramus and Thisbe dance. This is no effortless waltz; the meeting of the two puppets’ bodies is a frenetic feat of manoeuvring, requiring a large team of performers. Watching the rickety figures spin around the stage, two opposing things become simultaneously true: the moment is both beautiful and oddly moving, and at the same time conspicuous in its feverish craft. Labour and illusion at once – the magic trick.

“This is the nature of theatre,” Krymov states elsewhere in the programme, “this is how theatre is created.” Precisely.

Photo: Ellie Kurttz.

Return to the Globe

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Originally written for The Stage.

By now it is a truism that Shakespeare’s plays explore universal themes, but the Globe has taken this idea further than most. From its riverside base in London, the theatre has increasingly attempted to live up to its name and showcase Shakespeare’s work on an international level, both by touring its own productions and bringing in companies from around the world.

The pinnacle of the theatre’s international ambition to date was the 2012 Globe to Globe Festival, which invited productions of all 37 of Shakespeare’s plays in different languages, performed by companies from all over the world. Festival director Tom Bird describes the feat as a “huge, ambitious and difficult thing to pull off”.

The first challenge was to decide which countries and languages to include, which Bird and his team tackled by choosing to focus first and foremost on communities living in London. The other starting point was the desire to make the programme as varied as possible – “we always wanted to mix it up”.

The resulting festival attracted a diverse range of audiences, made up of regular visitors to the Globe and a huge influx of new theatregoers who came to see Shakespeare performed in their native languages. Bird quotes the astonishing figure that 81% of Globe to Globe audiences had never been to the Globe before, far exceeding the festival’s targets. The programme also “confounded expectations of what we think we can do with those plays”.

Following the festival’s success, the Globe has made a commitment to continuing this international strand and is once again bringing back three Globe to Globe companies this year: Indian company Arpana, Fundación Siglo de Oro from Spain, and Deafinitely Theatre, whose work uses British Sign Language.

Sunil Shanbag of Arpana, who will be bringing back their Gujarati version of All’s Well That Ends Well, describes the chance to perform at the Globe as a “once in a lifetime opportunity” – or twice in a lifetime, in their case.

“It’s a very giving space,” he says. “It’s the kind of place where audiences feel welcome; there was a lot of generosity. It’s a very different kind of relationship that you share with an audience at the Globe, so as I keep telling people, it’s very hard to fail at the Globe.”

For Shanbag, the priority was to make the play work for Gujarati audiences, but he has been overwhelmed by the response beyond the Gujarati community, especially from Shakespearean academics. He suggests that Arpana’s version, which drew on popular street theatre aesthetics, worked because “the very powerful emotions that run through Shakespeare’s plays – of love, hate, betrayal, loss – these are elements that are very similar to the elements that you find in Indian storytelling”.

Similarly, Fundación Siglo de Oro’s Rodrigo Arribas notes similarities between Shakespeare’s plays and the theatre of Spain’s Golden Age. After presenting Henry VIII in 2012, this year the company are performing Lope de Vega’s Punishment Without Revenge, which Arribas says shares Shakespeare’s “profound capacity for dissecting the psycho-emotional nature of human beings with their desires, ambitions, perversions, doubts”.

For Deafinitely Theatre, who presented their version of Love’s Labour’s Lost at the 2012 festival, Globe to Globe brought different challenges. “Our language is very dependent on eye contact and really focusing on each other,” says artistic director Paula Garfield, “but with the Globe you can’t do that. You have to focus on the whole audience, which is surrounding you, so it’s about projecting outwards, upwards, across.”

The company have found that the festival had a positive impact on their audiences, continuing their project of bridging the gap between deaf and hearing theatregoers. They hope to continue this with their new version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream this year, which has been chosen to be as accessible as possible.

Never shy of a challenge, the Globe’s latest international project involves touring Hamlet to every country in the world over the next two years, coinciding with the anniversaries of Shakespeare’s birth and death. Explaining the impetus, Bird says, “we wanted another huge ambitious project to really get our teeth into and to reflect the relationships we had all around the world”.

The project recently received criticism from Amnesty International for its decision to visit North Korea as part of the tour, but Bird insists that “every single country means every single country”. He explains, “we want to be inclusive and not exclusive and to have conversations with as many people as possible”.

As for Shakespeare’s ability to translate across cultures, can any play be truly universal? “We feel that there’s probably nowhere in the world that won’t enjoy engaging with Hamlet in some way,” Bird says. “The play is such an extraordinary story that we really feel like anyone can enjoy it.”

Photo: Ellie Kurttz

Macbeth, Little Angel Theatre

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Originally written for Exeunt.

Ever pushing gently at the boundaries of what puppetry can and can’t do, the Little Angel Theatre’s latest challenge is a puppet adaptation of one of Shakespeare’s best known and bloodiest plays, opening this year’s SUSPENSE Festival of Puppetry. Challenge is the right word, as this is no easy feat to pull off, but somehow, with typical tenacity, the Little Angel just about manages it.

At the centre of this pruned-down reimagining of the play is a concept that casts all of Shakespeare’s characters as birds. The rank-climbing Macbeth is a proud cockerel, as are Banquo and Macduff, with Lady Macbeth as a preening chicken; King Duncan and his sons have been transformed into regal swans; the witches are recast as ethereal yet vicious carrion birds. Unexpectedly, this choice is borne out by the text, in which mentions of crows and other feathered creatures suddenly leap from the dialogue. There is also something in the pecking of the chicken and the swooping of the vulture that seems oddly appropriate for Shakespeare’s tragic portrait of grasping ambition, which comes across as all the more mean and ridiculous as a result.

Perhaps unavoidably, director Peter Glanville’s production is at its most successful when visual language dominates, flagging a little during the wordier sequences. It’s challenging to keep a soliloquy engaging when it spouts from the mouth of a puppet – even Lyndie Wright’s brilliantly animated designs can only suggest so much expression. The decision to use a pre-recorded soundtrack, however, is a canny as well as a practical one, adding an aptly unsettling sense of disembodiment to the dialogue that is at its most powerful during Macbeth’s encounters with the genuinely chilling witches.

In the captivating wordless scenes, the usual enchantment of the Little Angel’s offerings is swapped for an altogether more haunting variety of magic. In one spellbinding sequence, a doomed King Duncan is offered the graceful illusion of flight, while in another a battle is suddenly transformed into a thrilling, feather-shedding cock fight. The dark atmosphere, reflected in Peter O’Rourke’s gloomy set design, is also aided by James Hesford’s original score of ominous melodies and discordant notes.

Wright’s colourful array of beautifully crafted puppets are all operated by skilled puppeteers Claire Harvey, Lori Hopkins and Lowri James, dressed from head to toe in black. Rather than disappearing behind their puppets, these three figures take on a sinister significance within the performance, hovering omnisciently over the action like the circling witches and unceremoniously disposing of the mounting corpses. Playing with the manipulation that is a necessary ingredient in puppetry, this production delicately draws out themes of fate and pre-destination, leaving us in no doubt about the unseen hands guiding the action.

Samantha Spiro

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Originally written for IdeasTap.

Samantha Spiro has acted in everything from Shakespeare to musical theatre, as well as establishing herself as a familiar face on BBC Two sitcom Grandma’s House. As she prepares to play Lady Macbeth at the Globe, she shares advice on maintaining a healthy career balance and not losing faith…

How difficult was it to make the transition from drama school into the theatre industry?

As far as drama school is concerned, the brilliant thing is that you just get to do lots of plays. I was very lucky that my first job was at the Open Air Theatre at Regent’s Park, so I continued in a similar vein. In those days you got to do two Shakepeare plays and a musical, so I played Third Witch in Macbeth and Peaseblossom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and everything from a canary to a courtesan in The Boys From Syracuse, which was the musical.

It felt very much like the old days of rep, which I never experienced because there were very few theatres still doing it. I was very lucky to have those opportunities to get into that kind of environment very early on.

You have described the role of Barbara Windsor in Cleo, Camping, Emmanuelle and Dick as one of your big breaks. What impact did that production have on your career?

Because it was at the National [Theatre] and we filmed it, it had the knock-on effect of opening doors. But it didn’t feel like it at the time, it didn’t feel immediate. I don’t feel there’s been any one moment in my life where suddenly everything’s burst into technicolour and everybody has been knocking at my door. It’s been more slowly-but-surely.

How do you maintain a balance between theatre and television work?

I felt for many years that theatre was my main source of employment. But in the back of my mind I knew that there probably was a better balance. Although the worlds do feel very separate, I think that the more you’re seen on television, the more people want to come and see you in the theatre, and the more chances of you getting better roles. It’s only really in much more recent years that I feel as though I’m doing a bit of both. I absolutely love it, but I’m always eager to get back to theatre. 

Is there added pressure with taking on an iconic role like Lady Macbeth?

It is an iconic role, but I think you just have to free yourself of those pressures. Most of my favourite actors have played this part brilliantly, but when you come to it you’ve got to think of it as a new play and pretend that nobody’s played this part before, because otherwise you do drive yourself mad and you’ll lose your nerve.

Do you have any advice for young actors?

Try and work as much as you possibly can and try and create as much as you possibly can. If the acting work isn’t coming in then keep active by writing or by trying to get in on the production side of things. Just keeping at it if you’re passionate about doing it is the best thing, because there’s no logic. As long as you’re part of the business, I think things can happen at any moment. To not lose faith.

In Focus: Creating a back story for Lady Macbeth

Joe Millson – who’s playing Macbeth – and I agreed very much on what our back story is. The back story for us is about having had a child who died within the first few weeks of its life. 

I’m approaching playing Lady Macbeth as a woman who had post-natal depression and had evil thoughts about her baby, and then the baby does die, so she’s left with this huge, gaping hole in her life. And her husband feels guilt towards her and wants to try and help her out of this.

Going through birth, going through post-natal depression, and then going through the loss of a child has left her with a chasm to fill. That then gives me the springboard or catalyst for what happens in the play.

As You Like It, Royal Shakespeare Theatre

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In The Forest and the Field, Chris Goode identifies the forest in Shakespeare as an inherently liminal space. It’s an area where identities blur, gender becomes fluid and appearances deceive; the usual rules are suspended and all bets are off. In an age of concrete jungles, director Maria Aberg has looked around for the equivalent contemporary space for her modern Forest of Arden and landed upon the inspired setting of the festival. In this context – usually with the aid of a few illicit substances – inhibitions drop away, social rules are bent and the real world is momentarily distant. And so it is in Aberg’s joyously liberated As You Like It.

This Forest of Arden is both transporting and transformational. Leaving behind the stylised monochrome claustrophobia of the court, illuminated by harsh fluorescent lighting and presided over by a particularly thuggish Duke Frederick, the transition into the woods is almost a Wizard of Oz moment – a sudden blooming into technicolour. Upon contact with the forest and its merry band of hippies, led by an ageing rocker of an exiled duke, characters experience a sudden, disorientating shift. By establishing this transformational space, Aberg effortlessly navigates some of Shakespeare’s more abrupt plot swerves; here, anything can happen. The only thing that’s hard to believe is why the characters would ever want to leave this woodland paradise.

By offering us Shakespeare’s play in all its untrimmed, anarchic glory, Aberg’s version (running at over three hours but feeling more like one) allows the Forest of Arden to make a strange sort of sense through its stubborn refusal to follow logic. Characters fall in love at first sight or shed personality traits like winter coats, in a plot full of swift handbrake turns. This slippery structure can prove problematic for interpreters, many of whom snip away at the more preposterous elements of the narrative, but Aberg’s approach makes one suspect that those heavily edited productions are sort of missing the point. Arden, this production convinces us, is not meant to make sense. It provides a magical, freeing contrast with the restrictions of the court, its power such that it can remould personalities within moments.

While more extreme reversals occur elsewhere, Pippa Nixon’s captivating Rosalind provides perhaps the most compelling example of the force exerted by the forest’s intoxicating freedom. In court, a gloomy and sinister space succinctly captured in Ayse Tashkiran’s brilliantly unsettling choreography, the exiled duke’s daughter is forced into a role as restrictive as her floor-length black dress – which even in this dark environment has an irrepressible sparkle akin to that of its wearer. In Rosalind’s early scenes and her first encounter with Alex Waldmann’s petulant, hoodie-wearing Orlando, Nixon keeps the character tentative, reined in despite her clear passion. It’s only in the Forest of Arden, where evening wear is exchanged for jeans and bare feet, that she is exhilaratingly freed and her immediate crush for Orlando is allowed to blossom into dizzying, mind-altering love.

Every last element of the production is harnessed to create this sense of giddy liberation that occurs as soon as the characters step through the trees. The wooden frame of Naomi Dawson’s beautifully simple set design initially shuts out the light, fiercely boarding up the court from the natural world outside, before a stunning transformation brings us amid the trees and earth of the forest. James Farncombe’s lighting makes an equally dramatic transition from the stark and anaemic confines of civilization to the warm glow of the wild, while the performers rapidly shed starched suits and rigidly inherited roles. And then there’s the music. Laura Marling’s murderously catchy soundtrack crashes together the folk traditions of an ancient rural England and the messy euphoria of the modern day music festival – two things which, according to Aberg, aren’t all that different. (“I have a hunch that the rural English rituals that are now long forgotten fulfil the same kind of need that we satisfy when we go to Glastonbury,” she says. “I think on some profound level those things are connected”)

While the play is every inch Rosalind’s (and, in this production, Nixon’s), right up to the playfully delivered epilogue, the tangle of interweaving plots offers plenty of work for a strong ensemble. It’s a joy to see Nicolas Tennant on stage again after Three Kingdoms, here embracing another kind of anarchy with his wryly shambolic take on Touchstone and even briefly breaking out of the text to deliver a bit of deadpan stand-up. Waldmann’s initially sulky Orlando offers another dazzling transformation, moving through vain posturing and wide-eyed bemusement before arriving at a true appreciation of Rosalind, while he and Nixon have fizzling chemistry from the off. There’s also impressive support from Oliver Ryan’s other-worldly Jacques and a scene-stealing moment of tenderness from David Fielder as faithful servant Adam.

Yet there remains, for all the sheer joy, a hint of darkness. The frenzied pitch of emotion feels unsustainable, a high that has to be followed by a crashing low – maybe upon return to the court, which this production establishes as a particularly unappealing reality. Given the clear reference point of the festival, it’s tempting to see such events as similar escapes from a bleak and hostile world, hinting at the efforts of a disillusioned generation to ignore the injustice of their society through a haze of drink, drugs and music. I’m not sure this social critique is quite as prominently foregrounded as Matt Trueman credits it with being, but perhaps that’s just because my experience of the production was helplessly dominated by the infectious fun of the closing scenes, to which I found myself willingly surrendering. Maybe it’s just nostalgia for the blissful abandon of the festival, but it was tough to resist the urge to leap around on stage with the cast by the end.

At its fiercely beating heart, As You Like It is really about falling in love, and this version offers us a Rosalind and an Arden to tumble head over heels for. Aberg’s chaotic production might not offer us any answers beyond the space of this ecstatic, muddy celebration, but that’s the essence of the forest. It’s a magical place apart, full of gorgeous anarchy, but – just like the festival – it is essentially a transitory state. While the music lasts, however, it’s impossible to do anything but dance.

Photo: Keith Pattison.