Tuesday, 27 August 2013

Dreaming of Midsummer

Some plays are meant to be performed in a non-traditional environment.  Forget stuffy and slightly strange smelling theatres with threadbare red velvet seats; some plays scream for a setting surrounded by verdant green trees, softly trickling water and blue skies stretching for as far as the eye can see
Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream is one such a play.  I have no doubt that most people know the plot but for those of you who may be unfamiliar it centers around four young Athenians caught in a love tangle that is exacerbated by the antics of mischievous fairies ruled by their squabbling King and Queen who are currently at loggerheads over a child, whilst a bunch of travelling (fairly incompetent) Players get ready to perform a play at the Duke's upcoming nuptials, transformations into donkeys notwithstanding.  The majority of the action takes place in the woods inhabited by the Fae Folk and even the most talented set builder cannot emulate nature's own spectacular backdrops. 
On the Bank Holiday Monday we had tickets to go and see The Pantaloons perform at Mt Ephraim.  I have heard of this company before - their founder and Director (in all senses of the word), Steve Purcell, went to University with me (he was a couple of years below me but I remember him from around campus) and my father-in-law had messaged me about this particular production as he had recently seen it in Nottingham and told me to keep my eyes open for it locally.  The very next day Hannah messaged me to say they were performing at Mt Ephraim and did we want to get tickets?
Stupid question really.
Mt Ephraim is a glorious location for outdoor theatre, with the performance down on the lawns by the glossy lake with the great house at the top of the sweeping garden paths framed by the old garden walls.
The Pantaloons themselves are, according to their website,  a 'young, vibrant theatre company whose style draws from a wide variety of popular theatre traditions from commedia dell'arte and clowning to stand-up comedy and silent movies. In their theatre, your imagination is just as important as theirs.'  Quite frankly I think they are underselling themselves.
We arrived, picnic blankets in hand in the late afternoon sun and set up shop right at the front near the stage.  This is a particularly dangerous move as the Pantaloons believe in audience interaction and participation but this is all part of the fun.  As someone who has been on stage, believe me, you feed off the energy of the audience and we wanted to be close to interact with the actors and get right into the thick of it!
The show starts before, well, the show starts.  The Players sit and softly sing on the steps of the garishly painted gypsy caravan that provides all the set that they need.  They laugh and joke with the audience as they enter, stealing the odd crisp from a carelessly guarded open packet.
The anticipation builds as you realise that there are only 5 Players ready to jump between characters in a fast paced, funny and rather cheeky production.  I have never seen Shakespeare performed like this, from the opening act it had me in absolute stitches and there was a very clever use of props and music throughout the production with all of the talented ensemble singing throughout.
It is with a guitar and a song that the Players signal that the play is ready to start - and then they draw the audience in, selecting small children to play the fairies Cobweb and Peaseblossom, sending them on missions for salt and vinegar flavoured crisps and half-eaten chocolate bars, and, in the case of the adult pulled up to play Mustard Seed, a pickled onion the size of the dog that wandered onto the set. They even went through the audience to find out people's professions and incorporated them into the script; Snug, one of the wandering Players became an Infection Control Officer as his day job.  Apparently, when questioned, (s)he replied in a broad Welsh accent that 'is a'right actually'. 
The guitars, ukuleles and banjo's played numerous roles alongside that of musical instruments creating atmosphere over the top of the action. (The guitar sequence throughout the fight between the four Athenians in the woods was particularly memorable).  In the hand of the devilishly mischievous and slightly sinister Puck the ukulele becomes the flower that casts the spell over the unsuspecting humans and causes Queen Titania to fall in love with the distinctly 'luvvie' Bottom.
The Banjo is equally utilised to cast spells over the cast and the audience and both are artistically symbolised on the doors of the caravan.   The fiddle is even cleverly turned into Bottom's mask!
These five actors breathed fresh life into a performance that was probably a lot closer to how Shakespeare originally imagined it.  Clowns are clowns, they joke and laugh and adlib with quick wit, they banter with each other and the audience, frequently going off script and utilising current cultural references and even sit amongst the audience for parts of the show.
Their acting is superb.
The location itself added its own magic to the production.  As Titania and Oberon make their first appearance dragonflies and butterflies flitted amongst them like tiny fairies.
The actors aren't afraid to give their performance some welly, reacting and responding to the audience and playing off each other.  It's the subtle exchanges over and above the main script that really bring their characters to life in front of you.
Quickfire costume changes meant that the play moved along at a good pace, with the audience continuously entertained throughout.  The costumes also ensured that at all times you knew what characters the actors were playing as they chopped and changed between them, the same technique we employed in Teechers and Pint Size Henry V.
The fairies for example wore colourful neckerchiefs and bright skirts whilst the Players wore ridiculous outfits and the human mortals were distinguished by their polka dot dresses and military jackets (which must have been absolutely boiling!).
Oh.  I said that sitting near the front was dangerous.  I was right.  Luckily Stella managed to capture the moments for me on her camera phone.  Gee thanks.

Very early on I got singled out and was selected to play the role of Hipployta.  This basically meant very light interaction with the cast throughout the production.  Then I made a big mistake.  I challenged them at the start of the second half that they hadn't embarrassed me enough yet.  I was later dragged onto the stage and serenaded.  I gave as good as I got and gazed at the poor guy like a love struck fool in a desperate attempt to put him off.  It didn't work. 
Pantaloons - I can confirm that your challenge, which you accepted, was complete!
If you get the opportunity, please, please go and see this wonderful, energetic, vibrant company.  This was easily one of the best theatre experiences of my life.
And if you do go, remember to get involved.  Sing, clap, cheer, be a gloomy tree or a squirreling forest animal or a screech owl.  Holla "Hey Nonny Nonny" back at them.  This troop want to be interacted with - they thrive on it (they told us so afterwards when they came to chat to us).  Please, be a part of the show.

You will love it.


  1. Thanks so much for this lovely, thoughtful write-up! And keep an eye on http://www.thepantaloons.co.uk/ for our next shows in the Canterbury area!


    1. You are more than welcome - the show was fantastic so thank you for that!

  2. Looks like a fun, colourful performance! I love watching plays and concerts outdoors :)



    1. Hey Jen! Me too - we don't get around to go to many of them unfortunately but not for lack of choice! Good to hear from you, hope you are well? x