Pros: Easily the most age-accessible Shakespearean play I’ve watched, with adults and children alike in hoots of laughter.
Cons: Windy weather meant that it was sometimes difficult to hear.
William Shakespeare is both a great British treasure and tragedy. Despite being one of the wittiest, most foretelling and timeless writers in the history of the English language, the work of our beloved Bard has developed a false aura of complexity and elitism. And true, on paper the archaic language can seem a little daunting, but live on a stage in all of its bawdy glory, Shakespearian comedy comes alive for all ages. This is exactly the sentiment encompassed by BurntOut Theatre’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which takes the play to a charming new level of accessibility.
As a company, BurntOut Theatre specialise in site-specific productions of classic plays, performing in historical and beautiful venues across the country, raising money for charity as they go. This particular performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream was part of a four-day run of free performances right in the middle of London’s busy Russell Square. True to form, the heavens opened over the Friday evening performance of the magical tale, but audience and cast alike stuck it out until the end, a true testament to both the dexterity of the performers and the brilliance of the play itself.
While the windy conditions stole the odd line from eagerly listening ears, the outdoor setting lent the production a thrilling vibrancy, the air full of rustling leaves and palpable energy. The cast made effective use of the natural resources available to them, using thick trees as wings and, in a particularly memorable moment, a row of thinner trees as poles for Lysander and Demetrius’s attempt to woo the confused Helena. It was moments such as these that captured the hearts of the younger audience members. Though the traditional swords grabbed their attention, it was a brutal bout of nipple crippling which drew hysterical squeals. And while some of the more veiled comedy was lost on younger ears, an actor cracking open a can of Strongbow cider mid-scene had everyone doubled over again immediately. The actors performed the mystical play with the perfect combination of brawling comedy and mysterious magic, which meant that audience members old and young, Shakespeare-savvy or otherwise, were able to appreciate the beauty of the work and, equally importantly, just how funny Shakespeare can be.
Though the comedy embedded in the production was an artfully constructed crowd pleaser, the mysticism of A Midsummer Night’s Dream was far from lost. James Reynolds’ original score, consisting mainly of guitar and voice, added an extra layer of beauty to the outdoor production. His lullaby duet with Titania, played by the beautiful Natasha Cowley, echoed through the trees with a haunting melody and harmonies.
Each actor played two or three characters, with rapidly changing accents, mannerisms and expressions. The changes of character were marked by small costume changes, often using the addition of only a gown or hat to mark a complete change of species. As an audience, we sat enraptured by each performer; there were no weak links. The audience’s unfaltering attention, despite rain, dog walkers and a particularly thunderous bicycle race circling the square, demonstrate the level of talent within the company.
And all of this for free? Shakespearian theatre is not elite with this company; it is alive and energetic, full of warmth, beauty and wit. With their choice of outdoor sites, mostly in and around the London area, and their absolute dedication to the production despite cruel weather conditions, the BurntOut Theatre both demonstrate and celebrate how truly beautiful it is to be British.
Author: William Shakespeare
More Information: http://www.burntouttheatre.co.uk/whats-on/