A Midsummer Night’s Dream

24 Feb: Right, here we go on a voyage of Shakespearian discovery.  Having made my stage debut at the age of 16 in The Merry Wives of Windsor at Gawsworth Hall, Cheshire, playing a servant called Rugby, who had precisely 9 lines (some of which may have been cut, I can’t remember), I’ve always had a soft spot for the bard.  Not that often an am dram group attempts a full-blown Shakespearean number these days, possibly a reflection of the changing tastes of the theatre-going public, many of whom claim not to “get” the plays.

In truth, Shakespeare can be more accessible than many modern plays, depending on how they are directed, staged and played.  I loved playing Hamlet in Tom Stoppard’s abbreviated 1-act version, and thought even that was amply clear to anyone who wanted to listen, though the full play is not difficult to understand in essence.  It is what you make of it, as are all good dramas.

The point of all this is that the two am dram groups to which I belong are joining forces to produce A Midsummer Night’s Dream, a play everyone seems to know well but somehow I have conspired to avoid all these years.  Having rediscovered my relish for Shakespearian drama, I am cast as King of the Fairies, Oberon.  Lots of lines to learn and plenty of rehearsing yet, but the show is live on 20-23 June at Writtle Village Hall.  More to follow as rehearsals get into full swing!

1 March: Now cast as Theseus as well as Oberon.  More lines to be learned, not to mention some impossibly quick changes!  Ah, but our esteemed director promises some “judicious edits” to make the roles more manageable.  Rehearsal tonight, so we shall see how it goes!

23 March: Some progress made, now learning sections of Shakespearean verse in iambic pentameter.  Some are fiendishly difficult to get your mouth around, true tongue-twisters, though Michael is thankfully cutting some of the worst offenders.  The point is anyway to make the production accessible and dramatically coherent, rather than speaking in perfect verse, so on occasion words need to be bent to emphasise the meaning and clarity.

It’s great fun though.  As Oberon, I sat at the back of the stage watching the verbal – and almost physical – punch-up between the four lovers, resulting from Oberon’s mischievous interventions and Puck’s cock-up!  Should be a scream for audiences, though there will be some youngsters who say to their parents “I don’t get it”  even then!

12 April: A great shame.  Daniel, Puck to my Oberon and Egeus to my Theseus, and arguably Morecambe to my Wise (or is it the other way around?), has had a kidney transplant and is out of the play.  Doubtless he was on the list for some considerable while, but the call came and he had to heed it.  I’m delighted for Daniel, but sad to see him go.  He had done a magnificent job with the two characters and dominated every scene in which he took part.  I say this without malice – the show is much the worse for his departure.

No doubt Michael will, even as I write, but sourcing one or two actors to fulfil the roles, but Daniel’s are very big shoes to fill.  We might yet end up with a female Puck, but Egeus is very masculine and bullish, though as the Athenian duke Theseus I do have the final word (“Egeus, I will overbear your will.”)

Wishing Daniel a full and speedy recovery :).

18 April: Several interesting things to report.  Firstly, the new perspective of having seen an alternative version of the play, courtesy of Antic Disposition (the group whose title makes me smile fondly in remembrance of playing Hamlet).  then the arrival of a new Puck, in the shapely form of Sarah Wilson, an accomplished actress who once directed me in Ayckbourn’s Comic Potential.  I have no doubts Sarah will be excellent, just very different to Daniel, so we will have to work on a new double act!

Meanwhile, last night saw our first attempt at rehearsing Act 5, the long and difficult section in which is performed the play-within-a-play, though a rather different one to that in Hamlet.  Logistical issues notwithstanding, Michael did a lot of line reallocation, which in one sense makes my life a lot easier, since it gave many of Theseus’s lines, notably asides, to other actors, but means a lot of black ink all over my script and the need to remember which bits I learn and which I don’t!  No doubt it will all work more effectively on Thursday!

3 May: The rehearsal switch around this week slightly confused me – we did Act 5 on Tuesday rather than Act 4, after I had been practising Act 4 for some days.  Still went well, though in view of the very many changes to Act 5 I need to learn these lines. Pretty good on the rest though, so it’s all coming together.  Looking forward to acting with Sarah, my new Puck, for the first time tonight :).

15 June: Less than a week to go now – we’re T-5 to first night.  Two run-throughs this week.  Not perfect and still some prompts, but looking better each time.  Get-in and two dress rehearsals to go, but at least there are five full performances before a paying audience.  It’s always such an anticlimax when the show ends, but at least we go out with a bang – two runs on the Saturday.

Personally I feel fine with my bits, though whether they are good enough is another matter.  Have been accused of perfectionism, but I know the words and hope I am wringing from the characters all that I can, even to the extend of mailing suggestions to our esteemed director!

Will feel more keyed up when the stage is set.  Watch this space…

18 June: First dress rehearsal done and dusted.  It’s always different performing on stage, and always takes some getting used to – not least with the additional complications of quick changes and costume malfunctions, and indeed for actors having to adjust to the greater projection required to be heard at the back of a bigger hall.

The principle of my wearing half an Oberon outfit under my Theseus greatcoat ran into problems from the start, since I had to sit down – and the velcro did not hold the coat together.  Then the thin baggy white pants with elasticated ankles, part of an infection control suit, tore… when I crossed my legs!!  Solution appears to be wearing black trousers under the greatcoat and cutting down the long and baggy pants.  Must also remember cufflinks and socks this time!  My two big changes worked, but only just – must get Bottom to talk more slowly!!

The only staging problem came when I got a very late cue from a continuity lady and was not sure from the lighting whether to go on or not.  Minor glitch that will not recur.  We also sorted out the bows, which were hampered slightly by the screens, an addition from previous rehearsals to hide the players during their performance.  The thing about the stage at Writtle Village Hall is that it is very tight – and marking it out in a rehearsal room doesn’t give you a true impression of how the walls and set close down the space, now further constricted by the addition of four “trees” – which I must be careful not to knock down.  It will be alright on the night!! 🙂

21 June (Midsummer eve): First night was fascinating.  Despite, or maybe because of the keyed-up atmosphere, we put in a fine performance, very few prompts, acted well and sent the audience home happy!  The props and set behaved perfectly, the lighting was there on cue.

From my perspective the only issues were a rather tardy entrance from Puck, requiring me to ad lib until she arrived on stage fashionably late (must prepare a few more lines just in case!!)  The worst moment from my standpoint, but the most hilarious for said audience, was in Act 5 when my over-loose cummerbund dropped off, and the velcro holding my trousers together came out in sympathy!!  Quite sure the estimable wardrobe mistress won’t let that happen again, so I will keep performing the same stuff and hope we entertain each time! 🙂

23 June:  Three down, two to go.  Thus far, a resounding hit!!  Alas the last two performances are both today, and then it’s the usual feeling of anticlimax as the show closes.  Just want to keep going now.  My best ever compliment: the son of a fellow cast member, who has I believe studied drama, said I have “great stage presence.”  Am truly flattered by that!

25 June: Well, it’s all over.  Pity productions have to end when we’re just getting into the groove and feel ready for a summer season in Clacton or wherever!!  Saturday was truly an interesting, and for me ground-breaking day.  Although I’ve done am drams since I was 16, I’ve never yet done a matinee performance, let alone a matinee, an evening performance and the post-production party on the same day!!

The afternoon performance, attended by members of my family and Stewart Adkins of NODA (see below), was my personal worst of the run. Not that it was seriously disastrous, but being the perfectionist I felt very dissatisfied.  Maybe it was to do with the fact that that is arguably my low-spot during the day, and by the evening I come awake.  Certainly the later performance felt much better, to the extent that it was probably the best of the run, in spite of having run my mother back to Tiptree in the intervening time!

The party was lovely.  Not self-congratulatory but reflective and positive – everyone enjoyed the experience, not least two groups with subtly different cultures having worked together for the first time.  I’d judge it a great success and hope that someday we might repeat the process for a production worthy of a joint venture.

The only sad note: Soon after the final curtain, Les Leeds died.  Les had originally been due to play Philostrate, but was forced to withdrew due to illness during rehearsals. This in itself was quite shocking, since in the time I knew him Les has always had a smile on his face.  Even so, he still managed to paint the forest backcloth, which was a fitting tribute to the man.  I was shocked when, a few weeks ago, Michael announced to the cast and crew that Les’s illness was terminal and that he was going to a hospice.  He, Laura and Leila went to see Les, who was always slim but had apparently wasted away to virtually nothing.  I hope he died peacefully, and I dedicate this page to him.

Meanwhile, our regular NODA critic saw the show and this was his opinion:

A Midsummer Night’s Dream – The Phoenix Theatre Company and Writtle Cards

Performed at Writtle Parish Hall, Saturday Matinee, 23 June, 2012, Director – Michael Lewis

Shakespeare is rarely performed by amateurs and then along come two productions in the same week – Macbeth by CTW and A Midsummer Night’s Dream  by Phoenix/Writtle Cards. I couldn’t see the former but the latter was an enjoyable production that seemed to overcome many of the obstacles that would normally make a Shakespeare play a nightmare to produce. Firstly the problem of a large cast was dealt with by two companies joining forces and sharing their skills, agreeing that this joint production would take the place of their usual separately produced plays. The burden of administration was shared between Michael Lewis of Phoenix, who directed and Laura Bennett of Writtle Cards, who produced.  The organisation was clearly agreed way in advance because the company was also able to take advantage of the RSC Open Stages opportunity. Thus it was that a cast of nineteen players, including several children, not only successfully performed one of Shakespeare’s best known comedies but also had some professional input from the RSC.

Performed on a very small stage by most amateur standards without the benefit of tracks for tabs or wing space to accommodate large props the opening Athens scene was created through the use of a temporary cloth. This came down after Scene 1 to reveal a beautifully painted wooded “backcloth” that was used for all subsequent scenes. This was supplemented by a few tall columnar “trees”, a curtained seated area for Titania and two thrones that were brought on and off as appropriate.   The play by the mechanicals at the end used a curtained clothes rail to hide the actors and a painted wall for the hilarious lovers’ scene.  With judicious use of the auditorium for the entry of Theseus and Hippolyta and reserved seats in the front row for their use during the “play” the relatively small stage created an intimate feeling that was very effective.

The cast is too large to review individually so suffice to say that the company coped well with the language and rhythm of the dialogue; diction and audibility were good and the humour was always well developed, especially during the love quartet in the woods and the play at the end. Shakespeare takes some getting used to, especially the intonation of the lines where the temptation sometimes is to “sing-song” through the sections where the metre is at its most strict. Director, Michael Lewis, created a highly entertaining production with a running time of 150 minutes including the interval. The joint-venture approach, if it produces such quality, must be considered again whenever the needs of the play require it.  I would be interested to learn if the economics worked out favourably compared with single productions.

Reviewer – Stewart Adkins, Regional representative District 8 NODA East

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