The audience at the Watermill, the West Berkshire Playhouse, bustle into the auditorium, glimpsing as they pass the swollen river that cascades through the indoor skeleton of an original mill wheel. As they take their seats, a group of white-faced white-underclothed actors, some in loose-fitting low-slung corsets, others with subtle masculine codpieces, lounge seductively on the square wooden platform of the stage, gazing with wide-eyed distant anticipation through the mist-lingering gloom.
In the centre a mirrored geometric structure stands with temple-erect austerity, reflecting the shafts of light that play from every angle. Around three edges of the playhouse balcony, white painted dining chairs, apparently balancing with precarious ease, jut in tight-packed ranks over the stage below, upper and lower linked by a pair of ornate towering laddered seats, dominating and opposing each other in the far corners. All are draped in cobwebs, a white billowing sheet hanging above, the whole merging effortlessly into the ageing timber of the Watermill itself. Magic is in the air, an intimate personal magic in an intimate personal space.
The company begin to dance and sing around the mirrored form, dismantling its solidity with the skill of magicians, and as it is swallowed into the stage surface an androgynous creature is revealed, spiky-blonde hair, garish red and white striped tights, a bedraggled tutu held provocatively in place by thick red braces. This is Puck, the elfin servant of Oberon, King of the Fairies.
Tiniest shifts of balance from one leg to the other produce a stunning evocation of the trapped tutued ballerina in a clockwork musical jewellery box, Puck's enigmatic sadness turning to glorious celebration when later he acknowledges his other mythical name, Robin Goodfellow, mischievous sprite from an earlier pagan past. The play has begun, as actors tumble in and out of Edwardian playroom cast-offs, bare echoes of costumes creating lords and ladies, lovers and fairies, carpenters and weavers, even lions and walls, every character rich in his or her own history, every character forming a unique and tangible relationship with the delighted audience.
Director Ed Hall has created a production, has tapped the enormous talents of his company, which will gladden the hardest heart, and leave it uplifted and longing for more. Adults and children alike were entranced by the audacity of some of the staging, the skilful use of simple musical instruments and voice to conjure wild forests or fairy dells. Where else could a lowly harmonium be used to such splendid effect, the clatter of coconut halves, or the singing of a snore?
So much more than any visual magic that this production displays, is the sheer accessibility of Shakespeare's language, spoken with an understanding and an appreciation that compels the audience, in its purest sense, to listen intently and comprehend completely. Roger Warren's performing text complements this magical interpretation perfectly, and Ed Hall's insistence on the importance of the Shakespearean spoken word, over and above modern stage effects often more at home on a Bond movie set than in British theatre, is amply rewarded by the audience's attention and appreciation.
As someone brought up on a mid to late twentieth century denial of the poetic beauty of Shakespeare -- where the mere threat of a rhyming couplet demanded a deep breath, an enforced naturalism, and some vain attempt to convince the listener of its 'accessibility' as modern prose -- Hall's production makes it obvious that meaning and comprehension rests firmly in acceptance, and not pseudo-artistic denial, of the poetic structure of Shakespeare's language and imagery.
The cast of twelve actors, shapeshifting and doubling as they go, each have starring roles in their own right. Robert Hands as Helena, and Jonathan McGuinness as Hermia (doubling as the joiner, Snug, who dons an hilarious daisy-faced lion outfit for the play within the play), are superb as the female Athenian aristocrats, one rejected by her lover, the other forced to escape the tyranny of a disapproving father. The intensity that these male actors bring to characters traditionally, if certainly not originally, played by young females, justifies Hall's phallocentric casting. From screaming hysterics to touching scenes of passion and love, Hands and McGuinness capture the essence of young female eroticism, sporting the simplest rouged cheeks, reddened lips, and forehead painted eyeliner. The choice not to complicate the speedy gender changes with wigs, heightens the appearance of these Some Like It Hot females, whose refusal to fall into camp only adds to the genuine sincerity of their lover's kisses.
Dugald Bruce-Lockhart is a vibrant and sexual Lysander, his unwitting journey from doting love to hard-hearted disdain, as viciously comic as any rejection imaginable, whilst his 'rival', Demetrius, played by Vincent Leigh, adds such arrogant danger to the part, that sparks seem to visibly fly when they are near each other. Leigh's wall-playing tinker, Snout, complete with brick-laden pockets and an ornamental stone cannonball head-dress, provides the hand-made chink for Pyramus and Thisbe in the final court play, his sense of relief and achievement eventually shared with and by the audience.
Chris Myles as the harsh father of Hermia, Egeus, also doubling as the sycophantic carpenter and director of the Pyramus play, Quince, is superb in both roles. Myles dons his circus ringmaster outfit to speak the play within the play's prologue, but dumbstruck, inevitably dries in front of his aristocratic patrons. Quince's casting of Flute, the bellows mender, as Thisbe, allows Jules Werner to prance with all the feminine graces of a London Wasps rugby player, his ridiculously long straw coloured hair streaming behind him.
The Athenian lord, Theseus, and his Amazonian betrothed, Hippolyta, are played with impressive regal arrogance by Matt Flynn and Emilio Doorgasingh. Their counterparts in the fairy world are equally impressive. Guy Williams as Oberon is splendid as he struts his magical patriarchy, having confronted and verbally sparred with his queen, Titania, by demanding she relinquish her recently acquired changeling child. Richard Clothier as Titania is at once playful and easily beguiled by Puck's herbal witchcraft, whilst also strong, authoritative and argumentative in her role as Queen and headstrong consort.
Traditionally a comic tour de force, the part of the weaver, Bottom, changed by Puck into half-man half-ass, is played with Yorkshire bravado by Tony Bell. Bell 's transformation, such a simple contrivance of ass's-eared woollen cap, and a visual pun which it would be churlish to reveal, but which left the audience reeling, was totally convincing. Bell 's magic-induced effect on Titania, his arrogant desire to play all the parts in the Pyramus/Thisbe play, and his farcical, unending cod-death scene are only moments in a masterclass in comic performance.
Bottom's introduction to Titania's fairies, an instant of subtle though heightened homoeroticism, amply justifies the belief that it is unnecessary to encumber the play with child actors for these fairy roles. However, that principal fairy, Puck, as played by Simon Scardifield, is a hauntingly fanciful creature, prone to petulant outbursts and childlike cunning. Scardifield will always epitomise Puck for me now. His tattered tutu and endearingly wicked impish face perfectly suited to a character whose behaviour can always be judged naughty, never nasty.
That Scardifield could create so perfectly the tailor, Starveling, forced to play the unenviable Man in the Moon for Pyramus and Thisbe, illustrates the skill of this part-doubling actor. The ease with which this post-modern audience accepted these changes of character and part shows how the early modern playhouse understood the pragmatic need to use their talented casts to the full. Just as now, the Shakespearean playing company had to pay its actors, and financial concerns meant the most employable were also the most adaptable.
Michael Pavelka's design and Ben Ormerod's lighting heightened the magical quality of a play that demands less of a dream, more of a fairy-tale reality presented as a dream. Ed Hall must be justifiably proud of this endeavour, and following its forthcoming tour that includes Barbados, Bromley, Newcastle, Richmond and Germany (all right for some) this surely will be snapped up by a West End producer. The Watermill has succeeded in attracting one of the most innovative and adventurous companies on the contemporary British theatre scene. The playhouse is obviously in tune with the local community it serves, but it deserves a far wider audience. If you see one Shakespeare play this year, let it be A Midsummer Night's Dream at the Watermill — you know it makes sense.
Kevin Quarmby © 2003