A Midsummer Night’s Dream
Just like that one fabled village of indomitable Gauls holding out against the Roman invaders with magic potion and the cunning and brawn of its protagonists, there is a small village in North Yorkshire that is bucking the trends of cultural belittlement by the powers that be. And so it was that on a mildly wet summer’s day, a fortuitous group of thespians from Danby Dale presented their outdoor production of the Mechanicals’ play-within-a-play from Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream.
Opening with the entrance of the royal wedding parties, the much shortened adaptation retained its original framing as a play performed by labourers for the pleasure of Athenian aristocracy who, after several days of Puck-induced lovers’ agony, have found happiness in marriage. Theseus, king of Athens, played with poise and a natural authority by Dr Marcus van Dam, alongside his wife Hippolyta, queen of the Amazons, opened proceedings. Catherine van Dam’s Hippolyta, barefoot and with a ferocious air of feral dominance immediately set the production’s tone; this was not a world where women are mere adornments on their husbands’ arms after marriage. To add emphasis to this, all Lysander and Demetrius’ banter had been given to Hermia and Helena (played by Aljena Barber and Karolina Brzobohata respectively). This then cast the two gents (played by Dan Francis and James Harris) as foppish Bond villains; strong, silent types happily cooking up schemes behind their dark glasses while leaving all that actually mattered very much up to their wives. The wedding party’s commentary on the Mechanicals’ play, while still cutting, contained empathy and humour, rather than just simply bullying the well-intentioned but incompetent efforts of the Mechanicals. These interjections are, in comparison to the lines of the Mechanicals, more convoluted and less prone to get a laugh. Nonetheless, they were excellently discharged by the quartet of actors with speaking parts. And Dr van Dam’s throwaway delivery of the line “With the help of a surgeon he might yet recover…” after Pyramus had thrown himself onto his own blade was a masterclass in meta-comedy.
The play-within-a-play is introduced by Philostrate, who, when unable to dissuade Theseus from allowing the play to be presented, lowers expectations to the point that it will inevitably become a success, which thereby counteracts his original intention of belittling the labourers’ contribution to the festivities. Michelle Hopley played Philostrate as the archetypal white, privileged male, whose entitled nosiness and judgment tests the patience of those it is inflicted on. It is a character that every audience member would recognise as someone they had to deal with at work or within their own communities. With the storyline and the characters of Thisbe and Pyramus introduced in a prologue, the action ensued.
Snout, as Wall (Jannik Gauert), not only displayed brickwork of a Trumpian hue, but also played his part of mercilessly separating true lovers with a passion that would have made Donald proud. Snug, as Lion (Masha Immel), being the fulcrum of the play’s tragic end was played with a dedication to the character that would not have been out of place in Stanislawski’s Moscow Art Theatre – how her house has managed to live with such a timid and self-conscious lion for the past weeks is anyone’s guess.
Starveling, as Moonshine (James Skinner), made a scene-stealing appearance, adapting Shakespeare’s prose when exasperated by the wedding parties’ overtly literal criticism of his appearance, effectively telling them to stuff it, use their imaginations and not get hung up on pointless technicalities – all rather Brechtian and very much cutting to the core of our current social challenges.
Flute, as Thisbe (Miriam Moeller), refreshingly played by a woman, enacted the part with innocence, gaiety and pantomimic nuance, creating a remarkable believability in the character’s romantic relationship with Bottom’s Pyramus (Mark Barber) and easily bridging the gap in age and looks of the two performers.
Just like Keanu Reeves in most of his films, Mark Barber as Bottom / Pyramus was an inspired bit of type casting; Botton’s Bottom simply inhabited the part, as though it had been written for him (rumour has it that the brightly gartered and feathered costume constituted ‘being dressed down’ to Barber’s normal day wear). In the spirit of Shakespeare’s first clown, William Kempe, Barber’s Pyramus gave a physical tour-de-force performance; jigging across the stage and later throwing himself onto his own blade with the vigour of an over-caffeinated and -confident teenager, much to the delight of his young female fan-club in their specially reserved first row seats (who seemed to relish most of all the lengthy demise of their teacher). His physical performance was matched emotionally; he flitted between the ecstasy of young love, the tragedy of its loss and matter-of-fact plot explanations with such ease it seemed almost natural, rather than rehearsed. It all suggests that, should Hollywood not work out, Barber can fall back on a promising career in teaching.
Overall, the chemistry of the Mechanicals and the balancing interjections of the royal wedding party wet audience eyes with mirth and laughter – all in all, real sustenance for the soul that has seldom been more needed than now. However, just like the resistance to Rome of the aforementioned fabled village of Gauls, the perpetuation of cultural creation requires a Getafix, who takes initiative and collects his ingredients to provide the village with their magic potion. The Esk Valley Community’s cultural druid, Jonathan Reid, not only conceived, cast and directed the show, but also gave it its third and final (and very much Shakespearian) framing as a play-within-a-play-within-a-play, opening and closing the show as a Puck-ish and Rylance-esque master of ceremonies. In addition, bringing such work to life always requires a number of people whose efforts are not directly rewarded by audience ovation and applause, as such: Klara Brzobohata, Mieke Gunst, Ronja Boetcher and Franca Melcher deserve much recognition for their contributions to costume, make-up and props, whilst front-of-house affairs were ably managed by Nick Kellner and Jael Sauder.
Within the play, the royal wedding party makes many asides about how terrible both the play-within-the-play and its players are and how undeserving it all is for their attention, yet cannot help being drawn in and engaged by it, no matter how unprofessional and incompetently it is presented. This should be a lesson to us all: while we may be starved of well-known actors strutting their stuff across the boards at the National Theatre, the pure joie de vivre brought to this show by all those involved and passed on to those who watched is what brought it all to life and made it a memorable experience. It is the active participation and engagement in culture which is essential to life; skill and professionalism are just the cherry on top.