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In which I continue to seek part time employment as the ruler of the world.

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Thursday February 19 2009

Last Tuesday I saw a performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Rose Theatre, Kingston.  Go here for information about the show, plus the usual placards-outside-the-theatre claims about how wonderful it is.  I’ve not yet heard the interview with the director, but you can and I probably will quite soon, after I’ve written this.

The cast, like casts in Shakespeare’s time, was all male.  Which I admired, but did not really love.  I’m a heterosexual, and I couldn’t quite live with men doing Hermia, Helena, and above all Titania.  The last Titania I saw was Helen Mirren on a DVD, and I’m afraid I missed the sheer gorgeousness of that, worthy though Titania was in this production.  The fairies, on the other hand, worked splendidly.  Bottom refers to them as “Monsieur” This and Monsieur That, and fairies played like nineteenth century fairies, as young girls, seem all wrong.  The fairies were also notable for their beautifully choreographed ensemble, which featured not only lots of splendidly modern-dancish movement but also terrific musical effects achieved by equipping each of them with a mouth organ for the big set-piece scenes.  With these they reacted in a manner that was arresting and vivid, yet utterly other-worldly.

In general, this was an enthusiastically performed piece of theatrical teamwork, and I can entirely understand all the rave reviews.  But I’m afraid I liked this production rather less than I wanted to, if you get my meaning.  I admired it, but there were two things wrong with it in particular.

First, there was a general lack of star quality.  Some of the actors were pretty good, like Puck (played as Boy George in a short sticking-out ballet skirt), and Titania, and Lysander, and Hermia, although for me it all had the air of an excellent school play rather than a decent professional production.  Others, most notably Oberon, were less good.  None, and especially not Oberon, seemed to radiate that kind of star quality that you want in this play.  The director clearly knew what the play is about, and knows that it is poetic and, well, Shakespearian.  The set was a bit odd, but at least he didn’t set it in a lunatic asylum or a gymnasium or a power station.  But something about the way they all spoke it made it all seem rather unmagical.

Or maybe the problem was the other musical contribution made by the fairies, which I resented more and more as the night went on.

Now I quite see what they were doing here.  The text of the Dream is awash with musical references, and you must have music.  (I was in a crappy internet-radio production of the Dream a while ago which did not have any music.  Frankly, we were wasting our time.) But what the fairies did was accompany all the scenes set in their magical forest, but in which they did not hog the action, with little tinkles and tap-taps on percussion instruments of various kinds, which I found, frankly, more and more infuriating.  If you are a theatre critic you know this play forwards, sideways and backwards, or you should, but I don’t know it that well.  Shakespeare’s language is not the easiest to follow, and I need all the help I can get from the actors to make sense of it.  Yet all the tinkling and tapping brought the whole thing, for me, crashing down into incomprehensible - or where comprehensible deeply unmagical - mush.  I simply could not make out enough of what was being said.  Some kind of quietly magical sostenuto and pianissimo harmonies might have worked well, because that might have left the spoken words unmolested.  But not the tapping and the tinkling.  Fairies, shut the fuck up, I wanted to yell.  They were great, when they had the stage to themselves, because they didn’t interrupt themselves with their musical instruments, but instead integrated their mouth organing with their actions and reactions.  But they destroyed everyone else with their deeply unmagical magic-noises.  Even when the words could be heard, they weren’t allowed to resonate.  You couldn’t absorb or enjoy them, because there would be that damn tapping or tinkling again.  Shakespeare’s word-music and their actual music cancelled each other out.

At this point, I need to admit to having missed the whole of Act 1 Scene 1.  When I and my companion got there the show had just entered the accursed land of tapping and tinkling, so I witnessed everything I saw of this production until the end, when the action returns to Athens, in this deranged tapped and tinkled state.  So far as I was aware, it knew no better.  But then, back in Athens, the tapping and tinkling ceased, and suddenly I could hear every precious word.  Suddenly, because I was suddenly being spared the reality of such interruptions, I could have heard a pin drop, but I didn’t.  Magic.  Suddenly, it was A Midsummer Night’s Dream again.  Which was not the effect they wanted at all.  The forest should be magical and Athens prosaic.  This version was the other way around.  But at least there was some magic.

Maybe this was why the cast lacked star quality.  Maybe they all had star quality in abundance, but it was tapped and tinkled out.  Because at the end, they all started to look and sound like the stars they had not been previously.

Also, the final scene just happened to be done very, very well, with lots of excellent comic business (see the first comment here).  But again, maybe they just left my ears free of distraction and I was able to enjoy excellent comic business that had been present throughout.  So in the end, I was happy.  But afterwards I found myself reckoning that this was a bit late.

If we shadows have offended, think but this and all is mended.

For me, thinking something poetic didn’t suffice.

… and Robin shall restore amends.

So, Robin, how about a fifty percent refund?

For Titania I much prefer watching Alessandra Ferri

the music is pretty good as well.

Posted by Graham Stephen on 20 February 2009
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