Thursday, May 19, 2016

'A Midsummer Night's Dream: A Play for the Nation' by William Shakespeare

19 May 2016

In September 2008 the Artistic Director of the Royal Shakespeare Festival, Michael Boyd, gave an interview to The Stage in which he spoke about his desire to use the 2012 World Shakespeare Festival to break down barriers between amateur and professional theatre. The following day we contacted him to ask how Voluntary Arts could help make this happen. The programme we set in motion – which became known as Open Stages – led me, nearly 8 years later, to The Barbican in London last night to see a group of amateur actors from the Tower Theatre Company stealing the show in a RSC production of 'A Midsummer Night's Dream'. Erica Whyman's production, subtitled 'A Play for the Nation', is a remarkable undertaking by the RSC. The show is touring to 14 theatres across the UK as a co-production with 14 amateur theatre companies who are providing local actors in each location to play the rude mechanicals alongside a professional RSC cast, with children from local schools playing Titania's fairies. A total of 84 amateur actors and 580 child actors are taking part. Achieving this logistical feat is clearly very impressive but there was always a risk it might have been merely a worthy enterprise. Magically, the show is also an artistic triumph. Erica Whyman has set 'A Midsummer Night's Dream' in a dilapidated theatre with costumes that suggest Britain in the 1940s – a decade, as she points out in the programme, that saw the founding of the Arts Council, marking the beginning of “a fundamental split between the amateur and professional worlds” in the theatre. This narrative of amateur and professional going their separate ways for more than 60 years and now gradually starting to come back together has been the constant theme of the RSC Open Stages programme and it was wonderful to see this landmark production acknowledging it. It's a witty, playful production with a mesmerising Puck – played by a constantly grinning Lucy Ellinson, barefoot in black suit and top hat, moving with the grace of a dancer and bringing to mind Joel Grey in 'Cabaret', Marcel Marceau and the Child Catcher from 'Chitty Chitty Bang Bang'. The lovers' quarrels also had some amazingly acrobatic choreography and credit should be given to the show's Movement Director, Sian Williams. But the highlight of the evening was the performance of 'Pyramus and Thisbe' by the Tower Theatre Company actors, led by John Chapman as Bottom and directed by David Taylor. This play-within-a-play climax was achingly funny: people around me in the audience were squealing hysterically. It was one of the funniest things I've seen on stage for years. The amateur actors were clearly having a ball and were in total control of the situation. The final dance, involving the whole massive cast, was glorious and joyous – a life-affirming ending to a brilliant performance. Speaking in November 2009 at the RSC/Voluntary Arts Creative Planning Weekend at Stratford-upon-Avon where we first designed the Open Stages programme, Michael Boyd talked about doing something culture-changing. He said “something very radical is happening in theatre in this country … the combined forces of professional and amateur theatre provide potentially a massive engine of social cohesion and social intelligence”. This Thursday at The Barbican we saw this in action and I'm very proud to have played a small part in this magnificent journey.

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