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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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This review relates specifically to the Penguin Shakespeare edition (the cover of which is shown above).  I mention this, because of the excellent introductions in this book, which really enhanced my enjoyment when reading the play.

The book starts with a brief introduction by Stanley Wells, of Shakespeare’s life and times, followed by a list of Shakespeare’s plays, dated as far as can be accurately determined.  There then follows a lengthier introduction by Helen Hackett, to A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  This introduction is wonderful, providing analysis and different interpretations of the play.  She takes many of the main characters and looks at how they have been portrayed differently in various performances, as well as discussing the symbolism within the play and the context in which the play was written, and breaking down the language of some of the scenes.  I found this introduction to be both entertaining and enlightening (speaking as someone who very rarely reads the introductions in books).  One of the most interesting parts was where she discusses the play-within-the-play, which is performed by the mechanicals at the wedding party towards the end of the play.  While the mechanicals might initially seem like a bunch of incredibly amateur actors, who don’t understand the idea of trying to convince an audience, it could also be seen as they are far more aware of the ‘falseness’ of their profession, and don’t seek to hide the fact that they are merely actors speaking lines.

The play itself is, of course, fantastic.  It is packed with humour, wit and sensuality, but  most of all it has the most beautiful, lyrical language.  I particularly liked how the young lovers and the fairies spoke in different types of rhyme, while the ‘mechanicals’ spoke mainly in prose.  The story revolves around four youngsters – two women who love two men – but due to the love potions of the fairies of the forest, their affections become transferred and all sorts of confusion reigns.  Simultaneously, Fairy King Oberon and his Fairy Queen Titania have fallen out, and he casts a spell which causes her to fall in love with Bottom the Weaver – who is temporarily sporting a donkey’s head!  (A lengthier synopsis of the story can be found in my review of the 1999 film adaptation, to which there is a link at the end of this review.) 

It took me a long time to read Shakespeare – while I have often enjoyed adaptations of his work, I have never liked the idea of sitting down and reading his plays (and after all, plays are written to be seen, not read).  However, I very much liked reading this play.  Shakespeare’s wit and intelligence is clear to see, and almost 500 years after he was born, his work is still relevant and enjoyable.  I will certainly be reading more of his work.  The introductions in this particular edition contributed in no small way to my pleasure in reading and understanding the story. 

If like me, you always thought that you would never enjoy Shakespeare, I would recommend trying one of the books from the Penguin Shakespeare series – you might just be pleasantly surprised!

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Click here for my review of the 1999 film adaptation.

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Warning: If you are thinking of watching this film, DON’T watch the video clip above, as it pretty much tells the whole story!  I did try to find a clip of just the trailer, but incredibly was unable to do so.

This story is based on the novel of the same name, by Steve Szilagyi.  The book in turn was inspired by the real life events surrounding the Cottingley Fairy pictures.  However, the events shown here are fictional, and names and circumstances have been changed.

Toby Stephens is excellent as Charles Castle, a photographer who is devastated and loses the will to live after his wife dies on their honeymoon in 1912.  After fighting in Word War 1, he sets up a photography business, and is initially cynical when shown photographs which appear to depict two young sisters playing with fairies.  However, as he digs a little deeper into the mystery, he starts to question his initial disbelief and wonder if indeed fairies do exist.  His investigations take him to the village where the girls live, where he discovers that eating a specific flower slows down time and allows him to see the fairies for himself.  In exploring the phenomena further, Charles finds himself becoming obsessed with finding out the truth…

(If all this sounds slightly ludicrous, it’s worth remembering that many people fully believed that the Cottingley Fairy pictures were genuine, including none other than Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes, who is also a minor character in this film.)

I loved this film…I confess I only initially watched it because I am a fan of Toby Stephens, but I soon found myself wrapped up in this lovely story.  It really doesn’t matter whether or not you believe in fairies (I don’t), because the story is beautiful enough to carry you away, at least for its duration.

The supporting cast were all excellent – Phil Davis as Charles’ friend Roy, Emily Woof as Linda – the nanny to the two girls, and especially Ben Kingsley who was magnificent in a very disturbing turn as an intolerant Reverend and the father of the two girls.  The Reverend despises Charles and his presence in the village, and his anger is pivotal to the plot.

Stephens depiction of a grieving man who feels dead inside, is touching and sad, and beautifully realised.

The film works is a lovely looking period drama, and makes lovely use of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 in A major, Op. 92, II. Allegretto, as a recurring piece of music throughout the film.  The excellent cast raise this from a good to a great film.  Unfortunately the film is nigh on impossible to find on DVD, and only pops up on television very rarely, meaning that it is largely unknown.  However, if you ever get the chance to see this magical poetic story, I would highly recommend it.

Year of release: 1997

Director: Nick Willing

Writers: Steve Szilagyi (book), Chris Harrald, Nick Willing

Main cast: Toby Stephens, Ben Kingsley, Emily Woof, Phil Davies

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