This RSC production of Shakespeare’s delightful comedy (one of my personal all-time favourite plays) is nothing is not ambitious. As well as professional actors, it also features several amateur drama groups taking turns playing the rude mechanicals – themselves amateur actors – for a number of performances at a time. Schoolchildren from various schools also feature as fairies in the forest. Rehearsals with the amateur groups were often done via the internet rather than in person, so all in all definitely an unconventional way of putting a performance together.
Having played in Stratford initially, the play then toured the country before returning for another run at Stratford, which is where I was lucky enough to see it. So does the experiment work? Well…yes, most definitely.
This play actually incorporates three separate but interlocking stories – the young lovers Lysander and Hermia run away together to the forest, having been banned from marrying by her father, who wants her to marry another young man named Demetrius. Demetrius is in hot pursuit of the couple, but he himself is pursued by Helena, who is in love with him despite his lack of interest.
Meanwhile, fairy king Oberon and fairy queen Titania are at loggerheads and Oberon decides to cast a spell on her, which results in her falling in love with a most unexpected character…
And the rude mechanicals, a bunch of amateur performers are rehearsing a play which they hope to perform in front of Duke Theseus and his new bride Hippolyta at their wedding. But when Oberon’s right hand ‘man’, chief fairy Puck gets involved, events take a strange (and hilarious) turn.
First of all, a note about the Rude Mechanical actors – if anyone has any fears that amateur means not very good, then fear no more. The Tower Theatre company, who were the company on stage for the production we saw, were more than able to hold their own against the professionals in this production. The play within a play that the mechanicals perform is farcical and it must be hard to play at being incompetent. However, these actors completely won the audience over, and also generated some of the biggest laughs.
The staging is wonderful – with costumes and a set that suggest a 1940s period, minimal but very clever scenery and some wonderful jazz music provided by live musicians on either side of the stage, it is a visual delight.
I loved the four young lovers – Jack Holden, Mercy Ojelade, Chris Nayak and Laura Riseborough as Lysander, Hermia, Demetrius and Helena respectively are all wonderful. If I’m nitpicking I would perhaps say that Laura Riseborough delivered some of her lines so quickly that it was occasionally hard to understand what she was saying, but generally speaking all the scenes with the four of them (or any combination thereof) were extremely funny, particularly the aftermath of Puck mistakenly causing Lysander to fall in love with Helena, where Demetrius and Lysander face off against one another, while Hermia and Helena find themselves at loggerheads.
Chu Omambala was a terrific Oberon – slinky like a cat, with a melancholy demeanour (after all, he and his beloved Titania are having some serious relationship woes) – he cut a fine figure in his classy white suit. Ayesha Dharker is beautiful and radiant as said Titania, and I loved the chemistry between the pair at the end.
Another relationship with amazing chemistry was that of Oberon and Puck – played by Lucy Ellinson in a scene-stealing performance. Ellinson prances and dances her way about the stage, with wide-eyed mischief and playfulness. Truly, it’s hard to take your eyes off her when she is on-stage, as she channels 1920s silent film stars such as Charlie Chaplin with her exaggerated but graceful movements.
Overall, this was a hugely enjoyable production, and one which I would highly recommend to fans of Shakespeare, or indeed anyone with a passing interest.
(For more information about this production, please click here.)
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