King’s Theatre, Edinburgh – until 28 June 2017
Shaking down Shakespeare is a well-worn pastime, but Pab Roberts has taken it to a new level with his Shakedown version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, staged at the King’s for two performances only.
For a production which lasts just over an hour, Roberts has dropped all the characters in Theseus and Hippolyta’s court – and concentrated on the essential mix of the four miss-matched lovers, the fairies Oberon and Titania with their entourages, and the mechanicals setting out to perform their “tedious and brief” version of the romantic tragedy of Pyramus and Thisby.
The really interesting bit of the whole exercise, however, is that each of the resulting five acts is performed by a different set of school students.
The results are varied, of course. The five High Schools – Firrhill, Tynecastle, Queensferry, Royal and Forrester – prepared and rehearsed apart, although they all used identical costumes and the same set.
So the pace and level of attack was never going to be consistent. Nor, indeed, characterisation – which is most noticeable with the mechanicals.
Opening the production, Firrhill played it relatively straight as they set the whole thing up. Matthew Steel was a puffed-up Bottom, happy to play the main part of Pyramus, but wanting to play every other part too. John McNair’s Flute was youthful and bashful, complaining that he “has a beard coming” when told that he is to play the female lover, Thisby.
By the time Forrester got their hands on the role in final act, everything had changed. Jake Rennie’s Bottom was still bumptious, but Holly Falconer ignored all idea of a callow youth with her gutsy Flute who was not going to be upstaged. She brilliant over-played Thisbe’s death to hilarious effect. In fact, the play-within-the-play allowed each character to shine, rather than being a vehicle for Bottom’s ego, as it is often done.
The big benefit of Shakedown idea is that size and scope of each act allows each of the groups to really let rip into the performance, in a way that would have been much more problematic if they had to do the whole piece.
Which is not always good – in one early scene with the lovers, the Tynecastle High cast set about their work at such a lick that the rhythm and meaning of Shakespeare’s poetry was all but lost, even though every single word was completely clear. They easily redeemed themselves, however, with a beautifully executed lullaby for Titania that exhibited real understanding of what they were about.
Queensferry had the pleasure of Act III, with the scene where the complex love relationship of the four lovers, Lysander, Demetrius, Hermia and Helena, changes back and forth as they come under the spell of the fairy Puck.
This was properly bitchy and hilarious. Daniel Craig’s Demetrius and Harry Manson’s Lysander were excellent when they quarrelled. But it was Bethany Ross as Hermia and Anna Baillie as Helena who really got into their roles, with their own verbal sparring really getting both the words and the body language completely right.
Inheriting the asleep lovers, with their affections transformed back to normal, Royal High had the complex task of making everything right again between Oberon and Titania as well as having the lovers wake up.
The eight-strong group gave an assured representation of 18 different roles, keeping everything clear and even changing characters’ costumes in full view. It wasn’t as fiery or funny as other parts of the play, but it demanded real self awareness and understanding of what was going on to make it work, and work it most certainly did.
Which the whole production does, to be honest. It works both as a representation of some of the elements of Shakespeare and as a thoroughly entertaining way to pass an hour. But most of all, it works as a device for getting people on to the stage of the King’s theatre, and giving them chance to shine there.