Theatre at its most creative will take your very breath away, captivating the audience with the simplicity of its ideas and breadth of its imagination. War Horse, now a global phenomenon of course, embodies this creativity and must surely be a difficult act to follow for director Tom Morris and Handspring Puppet Company. What would their next collaboration be, and how could it live up to the heroic sacrifices of Joey and Albert in the trenches of war-torn France?
Well, Tom Morris took over as Artistic Director at Bristol Old Vic Theatre in 2009 and has reunited with Handspring to stage a version of A Midsummer Night's Dream the like of which you won't have seen before. This has long been viewed one of Shakespeare's more accessible plays - often taught to the younger secondary school years as a sort of 'look, isn't he fun?' introduction to the Bard. As a teenager, the plot left me confused when I saw it as a lacklustre school play, but fortunately my daughters, with the benefit of a rather better education than mine, were now on hand to give me a synopsis.
The play does have a fiendish number of characters and events to grapple with - opening with Theseus, Duke of Athens and Hippolyta discussing their forthcoming nuptials. Then, there comes a love rectangle (if that's what you call a love triangle with an additional side) between four young Athenians. Hermia doesn't wish to marry her father's chosen suitor Demetrius, because she's in love with Lysander. Demetrius is in love with Hermia, but Helena is in love with Demetrius. Lysander and Hermia decide to elope and run away to the forest but Helena tells Demetrius in the hope of winning his affection.
In the same forest, a troupe of amateur actors gather to rehearse a play they're hoping to stage for Theseus and Hippolyta's wedding. Nick Bottom the weaver is wildly enthusiastic and tries to take on every role, but the whole troupe is watched over and manipulated by the fairies who live in the forest. The fairy King and Queen, Oberon and Titania, have fallen out and Oberon decides he will teach his wayward wife a lesson. He calls on his mischievous jester Puck to gather magical juice from a flower called love-in-idleness and apply it to Titania's eyes when sleeping, so that when she awakes, she will fall in love with the first creature she sets eyes on. Overhearing Helena and Demetrius, Oberon also instructs Puck to spread some of the potion on the eyelids of the young Athenians, which sets the stage for a comedy of misplaced ardour on the grandest and most amusing of scales.
This Bristol Old Vic production signals from the beginning that this is a unique interpretation, as the four young Athenians enter with their own 'mini-me' puppets and often concentrate on delivering dialogue through these avatars rather than speaking directly to one another. If my family and I are anything to go by, I'd say it takes a little time to tune in (as with War Horse when at first you notice the actors inside the frames) - weren't these puppets just a distraction? As the plot developed however, they became so much more - an exchange of souls, almost Northern Lights style daemons, an embodiment of alienation and reconciliation.
The woodland teems with life and possibilities as Puck is constructed from a fantastically ingenious collection of everyday objects and the forest is represented by a chorus of planks of wood used to great effect - as trees, as beds, as musical instruments, a pack of hounds and so much more - they are the thread that weaves this production together. Theseus becomes Oberon and Hippolyta becomes Titania through mesmerising adornments; the gathering of the love-in-idleness is magical and the appearance of Bottom in his altered state has to be seen to be believed!
This play delivers in terms of acting as well as puppetry - there is great energy in the cast and the scene between the four young Athenians in the woods is utterly convincing, with special mention due to Akiya Henry as Hermia (though she be but little, she is fierce) and Naomi Cranston as Helena. David Ricardo Pearce is outstanding as Theseus/Oberon, and the performance of the band of actors at the end is so comically terrible, with I found myself crying with laughter.
So, farewell to the rambling confusion of my old school play and welcome to this breathtaking and hilarious production - surely due, if the preview audience reaction was anything to go by, for a massively successful run in Bristol and beyond.
Rehearsal pictures courtesy of Bristol Old Vic