A magical Midsummer’s Night in Stafford
It is the small details that can make a theatre trip memorable. As I took my seat at Stafford Gatehouse Theatre on Sunday 2nd July before seeing the summer Shakespeare production of 2023 (A Midsummer Night’s Dream), I could hear the sound of bird song emanating through the auditorium. Coupled with a view of the Greek taverna set on full display, I was transported to another place before any of the actors appeared. Usually this classic play opens with the Athenians conversing; however director Sean Turner opted to have Puck (a male fairy) start the proceedings, which I thought worked well because Puck’s role is to act as a commentator on the other character’s foibles. It is not just the actors who are commented on here though; no-one is safe as Puck subtlety calls out some latecomers in the audience.
Then comes the Shakespearean verse, starting with an Athenian called Egeus telling the Duke that he wants his daughter Hermia to marry Demetrius. Hermia refuses, because she’s in love with Lysander. Egeus says that she must obey his wishes or he will invoke a law saying she must be put to death. Hermia and Lysander confide in their friend Helena. However, they do not realise that Helena also loves Demetrius.
Where the play really heats up is towards the end of the first act when the four of them go to the fairy infested forest and, with the help of a little magic, find that their affections have changed. The magic is conveyed by lots of clever sleight of hand tricks and handheld LED lights. Milly Zero, Noa Nikita Bleeker, Richard Logun and James Bradwell play the four youngsters so well. As they fall rapidly in and out of love with each other, the pace of the dialogue quickens; and all four actors get to showcase their physical comedy skills (jumping, fighting and getting covered in water).
In a second plot, we are introduced to a group of local craftsmen who are also amateur actors that have been asked to put on a stage play to pass the hours between the Duke and Queen’s wedding ceremony and when they will retire to bed. The craftsmen (including a weaver, Nick Bottom) go to the forest to rehearse the play.
There, the King of the Fairies (musical theatre star Dan Burton in his Shakespeare debut, displaying a great authoritative voice and a knack for speaking verse) asks Puck to use fairy magic to help him get back at his wife Titania (musical theatre star Kerry Ellis in her Shakespeare debut, who did not seem as at ease with the text but still put her heart into it) and make her fall in love with Bottom. But Puck, being his cheeky self, has a bit of fun and transforms Bottom into an animal as well. The role of Bottom is played by Jonathan Hyde (who many know from his roles in the films Titanic and Jumanji). However, Hyde is a Shakespeare veteran with over 15 credits to his name. I was lucky to see him in his most recent one, playing the cunning Claudius in Hamlet at Theatre Royal, Windsor, and was so impressed that I had to take the opportunity to see him play a polar opposite role in my own county town. Hyde could have played the animal pantomimically but he chose a much more realistic approach, which I thought worked well.
The show ends with the magic spells breaking and all of the characters learning lessons from what happened in the forest. We get to see the play that the craftsmen had rehearsed. Bottom plays a young man who believes that the woman he loves – played hilariously by “a man in a beard” (actor Olivier Sublet who gets endless laughs) – has died and so decides that he cannot go on and must kill himself. Although the plot is tragic, this scene is very akin to The Play That Goes Wrong in that scenery goes flying, lighting goes haywire and so much more (but no spoilers).
It takes a lot of hard work from cast and crew alike to make scenes that go wrong go so right and this company achieve it. I saw their fifth performance in three days and they had another that evening. I hope that next year’s performance is just as good, as I shall definitely be booking a ticket.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream is on at the Stafford Gatehouse Theatre until Sunday 9th July 2023. https://www.gatehousetheatre.co.uk/
Reviewer: Rob Brown
Reviewed: 2nd July 2023
North West End UK Rating: