A Midsummer Night’s Dream: A Play for the Nation

Subtitled A Play for the Nation, this production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, directed by Erica Whyman, toured the country as well as playing two stints at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford. The ambitious project saw different amateur groups around the country audition for the chance to play “Mechanicals”. The group I saw were The Canterbury Players, and they did a brilliant job: their Bottom was female which made for an interesting take on the role. In addition, local schoolchildren formed Titania’s fairy train: this was truly a production for the nation.

Elsewhere, the play was up to the RSC’s usual high standard. Designer Tom Piper created a proscenium arch and a sparse backdrop to represent a bombed-out theatre in the years after World War II, though Lucy Ellinson’s mischievous Puck reminded me more of a Victorian music hall star. Chu Omambala’s Oberon and Ayesha Dharker’s Titania brought dignity and glamour to the world of the fairies, in contrast to Sam Redford and Laura Harding’s more everyday Theseus and Hippolyta.

I liked Laura Riseborough’s Helena and Mercy Ojelade’s Hermia: they and their Demetrius (Chris Nayak) and Lysander (Jack Holden). There was a particularly funny moment when Mustardseed (Ben Goffe) ran on and kicked Lysander in the legs for calling Hermia a “dwarf”. The interval came when the two couples lay in the forest and went to sleep, which did make for a long first act but meant the second could be devoted to the Mechanicals.

While this isn’t the best performance of Dream I’ve ever seen, I really enjoyed it and the bombed-out theatre setting was evocative and made the fairy presence seem even more magical. I felt that the involvement of amateur groups and local schoolchildren was a brilliant way to mark the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death.

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Hecuba

Marina Carr’s new version of Hecuba, the Homeric tale first dramatised by Euripides, is playing at Stratford’s Swan Theatre, a powerful, stripped-back production of the story set after the bloody end of the Trojan wars. Derbhle Crotty stars as the title character, a strong and dignified woman shaped by suffering but refusing to succumb to it. She is superb in the role, entirely compelling, and Ray Fearon matches her as Agamemnon, the king responsible for her downfall. The two have a definite chemistry, and the play shines most notably when the pair are on stage together.

Amy McAllister is very good as Hecuba’s daughter Polyxena, but for me the most fascinating character is Nadia Albina’s Cassandra. Her capacity for prophecy has turned her into an almost sociopathic figure, shrugging her shoulders at suffering and displaying a grim satisfaction when one of her disturbing prophecies comes true.

Erica Whyman’s direction and Soutra Gilmour’s set place the storytelling at the front of the story, allowing Carr’s language to speak for itself. The text is certainly rich and beautiful, but I did become rather irritated by the increasing repetition of “he said”, “she said”: having characters speak others’ lines as if retelling the story is novel at first, but quickly becomes annoying. Atrocities are described, not seen: no fake blood in this production, but it is chilling for all that.

I am not familiar with Euripides’ original play, so I can’t compare the two versions. Nevertheless, I did enjoy this eloquent, thoughtful production.

The Christmas Truce

The Royal Shakespeare Company’s Christmas show marks the 100th anniversary of the start of the First World War – more particularly, the anniversary of the 1914 Christmas truce which was observed by many soldiers on both sides of the conflict. The RSC keeps things local by focusing on the Royal Warwickshire Regiment and an artist from the area – Bruce Bairnsfather, played by Joseph Kloska.

Beginning with a village football game in the summer of 1914, Phil Porter’s play takes us to France and into the trenches. There are moments of humour, not least when British soldier Smith and the German Schmidt meet and commiserate one another on their mutual hatred of football. Yet there is tragedy too, for instance when young soldier Liggins (Oliver Lynes) is killed.

Porter, and director Erica Whyman, do a good job of pitching the piece, which is after all about a horrific conflict, to the families in the audience, acknowledging the tragedy of the war without trying to traumatise the children. With a subplot about nurses on the front line, allowing for some female roles alongside the male-dominated world of the front, The Christmas Truce is a rich and thoughtful piece that doesn’t really break any new ground but deals with its subject thoughtfully and sensitively.