Sunday, 19 June 2016

Gentles, perchance you wonder at this show…

Chu Omambala (Oberon); Ben Goffe (Mustardseed); Ayesha Dharker (Titania) – photo by Topher McGrillis/RSC

I have had a dream, past the wit of man to say what dream it was.
I am feeling truly, gratefully blessed. First, the greatest, most profound King Lear. Then a matchless, audacious Hamlet. And now – last night – the most perfect, diaphanous, striking A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Seriously, Shakespeare does not, can not, will not… ever get any better than this.

What is even more astounding is that just this one remarkable man wrote these three remarkable, contrasting, peerless dramas. That I have been fortunate to see the most marvellous companies (including the creatives, of course) in the most marvellous productions, fills me with the most marvellous, joyous, almost-disbelief. How could I be so very fortunate? (And all this, of course, is just – just…?! – the sumptuous cake beneath the heart-rending, blood-red cherry that is the most gripping theatre I have ever seen: Doctor Faustus.)

And by the way let’s recount our dreams.
I remember my first A Midsummer Night’s Dream vividly (in effect, rather than detail) – as I will undoubtedly forever remember this one… – although, as one of Will’s most popular, accessible and most theatrical plays, I suppose I came to it quite late. It was at the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester; and I am pretty sure it was the first time I had experienced theatre-in-the-round (as well as such mind-boggling, awe-inspiring, dramatic engineering and architecture). The production was directed by Greg Hersov, and starred the magnificent Kenneth Cranham as Oberon. It was “Modern dress, with the fairies in particularly fantastic costumes of fur and feathers. The wood scenes were set around an abandoned bedstead.” What I remember most, though, is Peter Lindford’s almost hyperactive portrayal of Puck: acrobatically making the most of the Exchange’s spaceship-like structure.

In some ways – as with The Tempest – it can be quite onerous attempting to keep the play ‘magical’ without resorting to gadgetry and gimmickry: but I remember that production having a very humane feel (those at craft were as valid, as eminent, as those at court); as well as striking the right balance between dark and light, reality and fantasy – reconciling the play’s innate paradoxes – which is probably why it has stuck with me for so long.

Jack Holden (Lysander); Chris Nayak (Demetrius); Sam Redford (Theseus) – photo by Topher McGrillis/RSC

Following darkness like a dream…
And so it is now with director Erica Whyman (who I must, I think, henceforth have to refer to – and worship – simply as Minerva: “goddess of wisdom and sponsor of arts, trade, and strategy”), and her startling, invisibly-engineered (but exceeding complex) engrossing, phantasmagorical new production of (to give it its full title) A Midsummer Night’s Dream: A Play for the Nation for the RSC. Having been on tour all over “This precious stone set in the silver sea” – utilizing mega-talented regional amateur companies for the Mechanicals, and skilful local schoolchildren for the Fairy Train – its return run in Stratford-upon-Avon (reuniting, in turn, with each of those non-professional groups) finishes on 16 July 2016. So, if there are actually any left, grab a ticket while you can! Honestly – and I, as is my wont, have two more viewings (which will definitely not be enough…) – I have never been so thoroughly entertained in my whole life! This is not to be missed!

Such a command – and my description of it as “most perfect” – are no mere conceits. Every single member of the cast, creatives (especially Tom Piper: for yet another cunning, and utterly beautiful, period setting; perfectly lit by Charles Balfour), musicians, fairies – even the caterers, cleaners, ushers and programme-sellers, for goodness’ sake… – should be immensely proud of what they have achieved. Ignoring the Sisyphean logistics; the nightmare of managing an ever-changing cast of hundreds; this is a dream of a Dream – which, as with that earlier version, straddles the peak of perfection gleefully – yet never veers far from “The jaws of darkness” – by concentrating on the humanity and humaneness of everyone involved: whether these emerge through gifts of empathy, compassion, vulnerability; or flaws of pride, vanity, jealousy. Yes, it is amazingly, unbelievably uproarious: but the humour rises from a solid foundation of great emotion and intelligence – all those passions and sensations; all that ardour, all that vehemence, excitement, despair, ecstasy; all that warmth and animosity; all those sensibilities that make us who and what we are.

David Mears (Bottom) – photo by Topher McGrillis/RSC

What a dream was here!
As I have recently discovered, the only way to review such impeccability is to list every single contributor; and try to summon each individual’s unique contribution – relying solely on the “remembrance of [this] idle gaud”! So let’s start with those incredible, incredibly rude, Mechanicals.

Shirley Allwork (Starveling); Dominic Skinner (Flute); Charlotte Froud (Snug); David Southeard (Snout); Roger Ganner (Quince) – photo by Topher McGrillis/RSC

That we have such amazing talent residing in another theatre in our home town is nothing short of miraculous. Moving from The Bear Pit Theatre to the vast auditorium of the RST takes serious guts, though – not that any nervousness showed: unless it was, of course, meant to show; unless it was acted. Although not on stage, huge dollops of praise must first be given to Nicky Cox, their director (and all-round megastar)! Charlotte Froud – who was also their “rehearsal Titania”…! – was a wonderfully timorous Snug; and a giggle-provoking lion. Shirley Allwork – as Starveling, and therefore “Presenteth Moonshine” – was incredibly, beautifully dry; and has a stare that could (and did) wilt pompous courtiers at a thousand yards (not to mention a disobedient dog). David Southeard’s Snout – and rough-cast signifier of Wall – was embarrassment defined: especially when his “crannied hole or chink” was exposed; never mind having his stones “often kiss’d”. Roger Ganner, as carpenter and director Quince, has timing to die for; and was the perfect foil to his unruly company. Of course, it is Flute (a wonderfully, almost-bearded, faux-effeminate Dominic Skinner) and even more so Bottom (David Mears: on startling form – ranging from a berserk Brian Blessed-declamatory style through to some incredible falsetto, squeaking and hee-hawing) who get the best lines – Mears’ interactions with Titania being of great beauty, as well as outrageous amusement. But it was the ensemble playing that showed just how awesome this grouping is; and I really don’t have enough words of praise to describe their engaging, consummate accomplishments. (Sadly, this was their last night. Boo hoo. But they went out – as, no doubt, they went in – with both barrels blazing!) Stunning… – and what prodigal casting.

David Mears (Bottom); Ayesha Dharker (Titania) – photo by Topher McGrillis/RSC

Sam Redford was a magisterial, authoritative Theseus: often with a knowing glint in his eye; as well as a commanding stage presence. The same can be said of Laura Harding, as Hippolyta – always dignified; always in control. This is a well-matched pair: growing comfortable in each other’s presence; and increasing in charm, warmth – and love – as the night progressed. Jon Trenchard, as Philostrate – especially in the closing scene – was captivatingly bossy; and every line uttered produced increasing amounts of laughter from the audience. (Timing is a hard thing to define: but he – like so many of this magical cast – has it by the bucketload!) Peter Hamilton Dyer, as Egeus – looking not unlike Cyril ‘Blakey’ Blake, in his uniform – evolved beautifully from dictatorial to loving father; and our sympathy therefore grew accordingly.

Mercy Ojelade (Hermia); Jack Holden (Lysander); Chris Nayak (Demetrius); Laura Riseborough (Helena) – photo by Topher McGrillis/RSC

It would be easy (and lazy) just to say that all of the courtly lovers were superlative… and leave it at that. Honestly, never have I seen four actors – in all their argumentative, affectionate, boisterous combinations – play these parts so very, very, very, very well. Mercy Ojelade was a beautifully feisty Hermia: her emotions on show for everyone to see; and truly believable. At the beginning of her RSC career, this was the best of débuts. Chris Nayak turned Demetrius from villain to humorous empath – no mean feat… – and was certainly the equal of Jack Holden’s Lysander, and his mocking tongue. Both are immensely charismatic, superb at physical humour, and their continual joshing was a joy to behold! However, for me, Laura Riseborough’s Helena – who is often portrayed as a moping ninny – was (albeit marginally) the best of this constellation of brightly shining stars. I really felt for her; her every move felt justified; and her anger was discerningly and immaculately portrayed.

Lucy Ellinson (Puck); Laura Riseborough (Helena) – photo by Topher McGrillis/RSC

It seems to me That yet we sleep, we dream.
Oberon’s musician fairies – Jamie Cameron, cello; Tarek Merchant, piano (and brilliant music director); Alex Tomkins, guitar (as well as Jon Trenchard – see above – doubling on flute) – were similarly outstanding (as well as an inspired leitmotiv…). Their almost constant presence – as well as the sad packing away of instruments, towards the end – delineated and punctuated the action wittily and fittingly. Adam Cross, woodwind; Andrew Stone-Fewings, trumpet; Ayse Osman, double-bass; and James Jones, percussion – also billed as “fairies”; and also permanently onstage – helped render Sam Kenyon’s impressively befitting (and ingenious) music with immense passion (and mind-boggling stamina and precision). I have such admiration for the RSC’s “bands”; and will always be grateful that they are always ‘live’ – no recordings, here, thank you… – providing an essential (and awe-inspiring) element of immersion and involvement.

Chu Omambala (Oberon); Ayesha Dharker (Titania) – photo by Topher McGrillis/RSC

Theo St. Claire (cool as a cucumber), Mari Izzard (the one with the gentle smile), Aimee Gray (as light as air), Lila Clements (even lighter), and especially Ben Goffe (who expended more energy in one evening than I could in a lifetime; and who had the best, er, running joke of the night…) – were all stupendous as Titania’s protective and collaborative posse. Captivating – especially in their interactions with the Fairy Train of mega-talented local schoolchildren – and hilariously, teasingly affectionate in their treatment of Bottom – these were no mere sidekicks; but fabulous singers and dancers essential to the story, as well as that long-lasting overwhelming feeling of delight.

Chu Omambala (Oberon); Ayesha Dharker (Titania) – photo by Topher McGrillis/RSC

No more yielding but a dream…
I raved about both Chu Omambala (Oberon) and Ayesha Dharker (Titania), when they were last here – and they make incomparably sexy fairy royalty: ideal, sprightly soulmates; and yet with charisma, tension, chemistry and electricity buzzing between them like a horde of angry wasps. Their reconciliation was intensely moving; and I could listen to both of them recite Shakespeare’s poetry on a loop for ever and ever… – especially Omambala: whose every balletic-jazz-style move was mesmerizing; every glance intense. (I shall never see Oberon in quite the same way again.) Dharker was simply brilliant: her Titania may twinkle; yet those lights are as deep as the oceans. It was hard to take your eyes off both of them; but if Omambala glided across the stage with menace and manipulation, Dharker floated with joy and utter self-awareness. (Movement director Siân Williams, and her deputy, Polly Bennett, are definitely central to this production: their ideas flawless; and gracefully executed by all.)

Lucy Ellinson (Puck); Chu Omambala (Oberon) – photo by Topher McGrillis/RSC

The night though – as it must with any production of this glittering play – belongs to Puck. Success or failure is almost totally dependent on Robin Goodfellow’s amoral jesting; ability to gather up the audience, and take them along for the ride – despite the part’s sometimes discomfiting otherworldliness. To say Lucy Ellinson (and her top hat) accomplished all this before even a word had been uttered (and then just kept flourishing with increasing charm and cheekiness) shows just how spellbinding she was. She was born for this rôle: every single gymnastic gesture, every sideways glance, contained and meaningful; every word filled with wicked mirth and mockery; every other character – even Oberon, her almighty crush… – wrapped around her little finger (again and again and again – just like we transfixed and hopeless onlookers). She was everywhere; and always insanely enthralling. To be blunt, with the rest of the cast so similarly riveting and adept, she had to be this impossibly astonishing. I still don’t understand, though, how she made it look so darned easy….

If we shadows have offended,
Think but this, and all is mended.
That you have but slumb’red here
While these visions did appear.

Hats off to Lucy Ellinson (Puck) – photo by Topher McGrillis/RSC

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