Review: ‘We saw the play – and our beautiful city – in a new light’

24 Jul 2012 @ 3.11 pm
| Entertainment
'The cast materialised from nowhere against the backdrop of one of the world's great cities'

A Midsummer Night’s Dream by William Shakespeare
Presented by Nightshade Productions
Venue: The streets of York, until July 29

Shakespeare’s wondrous love-tangle comedy is being brilliantly re-invented on the streets of York.

This is a bold production which pitches young actors against the elements, both meteorological and man-made. The weather was merciful on opening night, the rain obligingly holding off for the whole of the entrancing, and, at times, menacing walkabout performance.

The man-made challenges were another matter altogether. It wasn’t just laughing taxi drivers, roaring motorbikes and squeaking buses, it was partygoers and roadworks too.

But far from spoiling the drama, the intrusions made the event even more intense, as the audience of 30 huddled together intent on catching every word. Right from the start, we bonded. How fabulously post-modern, we were all in this thing together!

Intensity was the order of the day, or rather, the night, as director Damian Freddi, cleverly subverted the darker moments of the piece into something verging on the Kafkaesque, even Orwellian.

His band of faeries might be better described as a band of fearies, representing stark modern vices, and 21st-century spectres: health scares, war panic, media abuse, and godless consumerism. This darkening served to render the comedy lighter and frothier than the chilly night deserved.

Ushered from The Golden Fleece on the stroke of eight, we trooped over to St Crux churchyard.

We were greeted, not by the usual jumble sale Scouts and Brownies who dwell in the stonework there during daylight hours, but by a bemasked faerie, Mustardseed (assistant director, Richard Watson) delivering stark warnings about the health dangers all around us.

It was, frankly, all a bit barmy, but it set the edgy tone brilliantly. This was not going to be a run-of-the-mill Shakespeare. Indeed, Mustardseed’s warning about the dangers of mobile phones served to dissuade us from iPhoning any more than the briefest snatches [so apologies for the poor selection of video clips].

Freddi cleverly split the traditional Puck/Robin Goodfellow role into two. Some nifty rewriting created young Puck (Vikki Touzel), a demented yet beguiling hippy-chick in denim, and older dandyish Robin (Ben Rosenfield), who swooped elegantly between waspish narrator and taunting goad, and served as our conspiratorial guide.

Soon we were on our way to Whip-Ma-Whop-Ma-Gate / Stonebow. Bewildered taxi drivers witnessed Bottom, an ebullient Ben Rowley – all England-shirt street swagger – accost poor Robin, thrusting him against the wall of Heron Foods in what momentarily looked like some real-life argy-bargy.

Though much of the sound was drowned out – thanks to the Number 6 to Osbaldwick (surely, a great Shakespearean character name), it was a neat introduction to Rowley and his acting troupe of ‘Mechanicals’ (Sophie Chollerton, Nathaniel Johnson, Daniel Marshall and Electra Carr, starkly portrayed as a group of disaffected Oxfam Shop goths, punks and Motorhead fans).

As we moved away from the clatter of Stonebow, to the relative peace of St Saviourgate, the evening started to develop its own momentum. A living statue (Cobweb, the media faerie, played with edge by Samuel Bourne) set the tone, staring us down from high above a gateway near the Unitarian Church where the real storytelling started.

This is where York became Athens for the night, and where the themes were spelt out: love, jealousy, ambition, pride, family honour, tradition versus modernity, male power, female subservience. Where the tangled quartet, Hermia, Demetrius, Lysander and Helena (Charley Hall, Jake Botterell, Stuart H, Riana Duce) were introduced. She loves him, he doesn’t love her; he loves another; but another loves the other too; and there’s a wedding plan, and the king of the faeries is battling with his queen.

And… Confused? It doesn’t really matter. What really mattered was that we saw the play – and our beautiful city – in a new light.

In Spen Lane, outside a modern office block [To Let. 20,602 sq ft. All enquiries: Sanderson Weatherall] a distinctly ancient scene was played out as Demetrius spurned the love-lorn Helena.

Then onwards, via St Andrew’s Evangelical Church, Bartle Garth and Bedern Hall, across Goodramgate, up College Street, with mini-scenes being played out every few yards. Entrances made with stealth, and exits elongated on this widest of all stages.

In the shadow of the Minster, on the green opposite St William’s College, sensuous Titania (Emma Osman) slept on the park bench as menacing Oberon (a first class portrayal throughout by James Whitchwood) dropped the potion in her eyes that would make her fall for the first thing she saw on waking.

Rowley triumphed again as galumphing, out-of-tune Bottom was transformed into an ass, thanks to some over-sized ears and a Boris Johnson mask – I’m not making this up – it was bonkers, and a laugh-out-loud hoot. The perfect moment for an interval at the nearby Cross Keys.

Before long we were on the south steps of the Minster, under the bronze gaze of Emperor Constantine watching the love-tangle tie up in tighter and tighter knots. The boys were great, all physical, shirty handsomeness and fury, but the women stole this.

Helena (Riana Duce) and Hermia (Charley Hall) conjuring up a girl-squabble that could have come from The Only Way Is Athens. Hall, playing her pathetic anguished tiny footsteps to perfection, was cowed by a feisty and imperious Duce. This part of the Dream was an absolute dream, causing rapid eye movement from girl to boy to girl to boy and back again. Thrilling, delicious, captivating.

But there was still more to come: mini-scenes at Minster Gates, outside Starbucks, in Stonegate, and in the snicket by Barley Hall where Titania and Oberon finally made up. Then some little moments at Swinegate Court East, and opposite Sarah Coggles in Petergate, before King’s Square, battling the roadworks noise in Colliergate.

Then that final play within a play denouement, the Mechanicals hamming it up under the limelight in among the atmospheric empty stalls of Newgate Market, and back to St Crux for a well-deserved curtainless curtain call.

This was a masterpiece of logistics, the cast of 21, materialising from nowhere, against the backdrop of one of the world’s great cities. A triumph of direction, with some excellent intermingling of modern themes while staying true to Shakespeare’s timeless work.

At nearly three hours (including interval), this will tighten up a little as the run goes on, and as the audience is marshalled to walk and not stroll. It was as good a first night as I have ever seen.

I urge you to catch it. A genuinely thrilling and very funny theatre experience.

  • A Midsummer Night’s Dream continues until Sunday, July 29, (No performance on Tuesday, July 24). Start: Golden Fleece, Pavement, York, 8pm. £12 (concessions £10). Pay on the night or book via: 01904 623568 or online at the York Theatre Royal website
  • Be prepared, take a brolly, waterproof, and a jumper too; it gets chilly when the sun goes down.