Originally published on London Box Office
One of the things I love about the summer months is that everything in London moves outside – you can enjoy great food, drink and theatre in the beauty of the evening summer sun and surrounded by nature. Some plays lend themselves really well to being performed in the open air and none more so than Shakespeare. So when I was invited to see an open air performance of ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ performed by Permanently Bard theatre company, I was absolutely on board. Even better, the performance was in a pub beer garden, which combines two of my favourite things – theatre and alcohol.
The collaboration between Permanently Bard and Fuller Breweries is in its 2nd year and is the brainchild of Tom Tucker, pub owner and producer. The show has been played all over the summer in 12 of Fuller’s pubs across the south of England. Personally, I love the idea of bringing the theatre to new locations and making it accessible to a new clientele; the West End is getting so expensive nowadays so any ideas to make fringe theatre affordable and fun for families is a big tick in my book. A Midsummer Night’s Dream is also mainly set in the outdoors – 2 lovers Hermia (Josie Catherine) and Lysander (Jack Harding) flee into the woods to escape Hermia’s father, who has instead chosen Demetrius (Jonathan McHardy) to be Hermia’s (Catherine) husband. Demetrius (McHardy) follows the lovers into the woods and is himself pursued by Helena (Lucy Aarden Southall), Hermia’s cousin and madly in love with him. However, these woods are no ordinary woods but are occupied by the Fairy Queen Titania (Bryony Meredith), the Fairy King Oberon (David Chittenden) and loyal servant Puck (Cameron Harle). They don’t take kindly to these invaders and create some mischief of their own.
Sean Turner’s direction made the play easy to understand for newcomers to Shakespeare and also gave a fresh take to the dialogue for those of us that have seen the production many times. I particularly enjoyed how Turner depicted the fairy servants in the woods – normally actors would play these roles, but Turner uses light effects on the actors’ fingertips to mimic the spritely nature of these characters. He divides any lines they may have had between the other actors and I honestly couldn’t tell that any change had been made to the script. Turner’s other strength was to add some really clever comic touches and scenes with audience involvement – Shakespeare can often be quite intense and prosaic but this play more light-hearted accessible to an audience of all ages. I thought this was very clever given the pub garden setting. I also enjoyed certain aspects of the costumes – Alex Papachristou had some great low budget ideas to spice up the mythical characters, from the fairy lights in Titania’s hair to the coloured contact lenses for Puck. I loved the latter most as they gave the trickster fairy a more sinister quality that is often overlooked. But not everything worked – the donkey head for Bottom seemed like a poor Art Attack imitation of the Warhorse costumes.
Of course, for a play like this to work so well and to get such a response from the audience is mainly down to the acting. A couple of people really stood out for me, although everyone had a clear understanding of their characters and acted with clarity and (at times) humour. I have seen this particular Shakespeare play a number of times and am always frustrated when the actors can’t interpret the humour within the writing, but this cast had the audience in the palms of their hands, laughing and crying and cheering them on. One of the two characters that I couldn’t help but watch was Lysander (Harding). Harding came across initially as a Jack the Lad, a really interesting interpretation of the character that I haven’t seen before. Normally Demetrius is portrayed in this style, having had his pride hurt when Hermia doesn’t choose him initially even though he has Helena doting on him. Harding had a great interaction with the audience right from the start, but still kept the plot moving and giving the script the respect it deserved – it didn’t feel as though Harding was trying to steal all the praise and I have to give him praise for that. However if had remained in this outwardly arrogant style throughout the play he would have annoyed me, so I was glad to see other sides to the character, albeit not as expertly acted. A couple of the scenes where he fights Demetrius (McHardy) wrongly stole the spotlight from the girls, who actually had the key lines for that scene and this was a bit of an error.
The other character that was captivating to watch was Bottom (Richard Fish). This part is a real gift for an actor; play it well and you will inevitably steal the show. Fish took full advantage of this – he overacted, he picked out the comedy in his lines, he involved the audience and it all worked. He even threw in a tongue in cheek reference to Marlowe, much to my delight. The final scene was Fish’s to steal with the material he was given and he really made the most of the play within a play, one of the best versions of that I have seen.
So if this is what collaboration between a brewery and a theatre company generates then I hope Young’s, Marston’s and Sam Smith’s all sit up and take notice. I’m already looking forward to what they conjure up next year, I hope that they take it up a notch and go for the two contrasting productions because I would be the first in line to watch that double bill.