A Fortnightly Review
By NIGEL WHEALE.
THIS MAY NOT be conventional, but let me begin with what is before me: Wilton’s Music Hall is a breath-taking venue, the building and décor itself an old stager, it can’t help but sing along with every production. This venue is sometimes described as a ‘hidden gem’ – and this can mean that it’s a bit hard to find (for one taxi driver, certainly). The finish of exterior and interior is now ‘heritage-distressed’, paint and distemper scraped back to ghostly gilt, faded blues and gold. Carole Zeidman is the theatre’s historian, mapping the site’s presence from 1690 onwards. She recreates one night at the theatre from 1871 in the drawing below. The sketch exaggerates the size of the interior, but there is one of those cast-iron pillars, still there. Harmon the dancing minstrel (in black-face?) is bottom left, and on stage, Alfred Vance, check trousers, double-breasted jacket, chimney-pot hat and riding crop, one of the leading comic turns of the day. Music hall could only happen in Britain, like pantomime. What is it with us, we all who happen to be here, doing silly?
The playing space is a simple, two-level stage, with a drop of about three feet — Bottom crashes decisively from level to level when bewitched. The production splits players across levels—Athens / wood, human / faery, mechanicals / nobility—in a number of ways. The action is full-frontal, each role sharp and distinct, every actor speaking their verse perfectly, with complete clarity. The Faction comes across as an utterly confident ensemble, many of them together since 2008: as they themselves put it, this ‘shared history and continual development gives our work a unique theatrical and physical language inhabited by every ensemble member’. William Shakespeare is included in the list of Creatives – so lucky to get him! The entire production is slyly immersive: Chatting in the bar with the cast and director after the production is great – they clearly see this as part of their on-going conversation with audiences, on stage, and in the social space, post-performance. This isn’t always the way: RSC players can be spirited away into the back room of the Dirty Duck, over the road from the Main House, if they don’t feel like being quizzed about their ‘turn’ that night.
The cast are uniformly terrific — like the performance. The contending elements of A Midsummer Night’s Dream — comedy, romance, low-lifers, nobility, Athens versus the wood, humanity struggling with the feys – are difficult to keep in balance. Productions can emphasise just one or two of these competing narratives over all the others. Having played Oberon in my primary school production, I completely understand these challenges. The Faction’s Dream is a dream, because each element is as compelling as another. But there is an angle. Tamarin McGinley’s Hippolyta gives ‘I was with Hercules and Cadmus once’ with a winky glance to audience. Herb Cuanalo’s Theseus comes back, too quickly and defensively – ‘My hounds are bred out of the Spartan kind’, a great hoot moment, which says it all. Twenty-first century gender politics gets a rise out of the text here, as in so many places.
But the Mechanicals do deliver the play. Theseus demands it, Tamarin McGinley’s Hippolyta grimaces — her compassionate lines, ‘I love not to see wretchedness o’ercharged, / And duty in his service perishing’ (5.1.85—6) are cut. When you go back to the text, to see how it has been excised, nuanced, spun, it’s for ever a complete mystery how those lines might then have been given, so long ago. Yet Pyramus and Thisbe’s tedious brief scene of tragical mirth must always have been a brilliant hoot. The hardened ushers at Wilton’s, who have seen it all, were still laughing out loud on the second night. Christopher York’s Snout, his Wall, and all the between-the-legs business, was so naughty – Holes and chinks. This was one gross author, audience, we still are. But then, Bert Brecht whispers through Wall — lays bare the device, Russian Formalism on Bankside, 1595:
This lanthorn doth the horned moon present
Lowri Izzard’s Starveling – ‘an undernourished or emaciated person’ – really struck home. Moonshine is so lovely, but it’s also, just moonshine. Beauty is frail, and ephemeral. We are just players.
Christopher Hughes’s Bottom, an imposing figure in a stylish parti-coloured outfit — Eleanor Field’s design of the production is stunning throughout. There is nothing rustic or absurd about this Bottom in his physical presence on the stage, another of the contrary options taken by the company, to work against what we might expect, making us pay attention: that ‘exhilarating sense that the ensemble had scrubbed their collective memories clear of the play’s performance traditions’. But then, his ‘translation’ into the Ass (often ‘arse’ on this night), with Linda Marlowe’s Puck on his back, was magical. And the dalliances with Titania — terrifying, as they surely would be. You get played with, big time, if you dare fool with fairies.
The Faction’s supernaturals are tough, rugby-type creatures – Christopher York’s Mustardseed really threatening. Director Mark Lepaicher describes the cast: ‘Most of these actors have worked with The Faction before, continuing our drive towards a permanent ensemble. It’s a genuinely diverse company in terms of age, class, ethnicity, sexuality and 50:50 in gender parity. It’s important to us that we are representing society on stage.’
This isn’t righteous tick-box selection by the director: The eight actors don’t just do ‘double’ parts, four of them actually do ‘triple’ roles. This versatility is astonishing, Herb Cuanalo morphing between Theseus, Quince, and Oberon – a traditional echoing of roles there, the mirror patriarchy of Athens and faery, as with Tamarin McGinley’s Hippolyta/Titania. Linda Marlowe’s doubling of Egeus and Puck is brilliant, disruptive of the city-state’s hegemonic ambition. Mark Lepaicher says, ‘It’s a particular joy for me that Linda Marlowe is joining us to play Puck. I first saw Linda on stage twenty years ago performing Berkoff’s “Women” when I was still a student’.
When I see work like this, chat with the company, I get the sense of utterly committed people who are devoted to a moonshine project, slightly not there, where you are. Who are you, anyway? It all passes, the event itself leaves no possible trace, despite all of the trailing commentary, blogging blagging. What kind of commitment is this? Who turns up? Read their programme entries, and many of them are all over TV and movies, of course — but some of them aren’t. The commitment to acting is a moonshine game, yet compulsive. They are dreams, our dreams, what we are made of. Bless ‘em all.
Nigel Wheale is the author of Raw Skies: New and Selected Poems (Shearsman 2005) and The Six Strides of Freyfaxi (Oystercatcher 2010). His academic texts include The Postmodern Arts (Routledge 1995) and Writing & Society: Literacy, Print and Politics in Britain 1590-1660 (Routledge 1999). An archive of his work for written for the Fortnightly may be found here.
More: Nigel Wheale on Shakespeare’s ‘Islamic’ Poem.