[Long Overdue] REVIEW: Midsummer Night’s Dreaming (RSC/Google+), Stratford-upon-Avon, June 2013

A while ago, Midsummer Night’s Dreaming, a collaboration between the Royal Shakespeare Company and Google+, took place in Stratford over the weekend of 21-23 June. (Well, if you’ve been reading this blog for the past while, you already know this.) After distilling my thoughts about the project for some time now, I think it’s now time to offer some thoughts on the weekend’s events, as well as prior to that. As well as posting some pictures that I took of the performances  — the internet does like pictures, right?

(l-r) Alexandra Gilbreath as Titania and Joe Dixon as Bottom.

A lot of criticism aimed at the project suggested that those who got the most of the project were those who attended the events in Stratford, or as Dominic Cavendish in The Telegraph suggested, ‘you were confronted with a near-constant stream of tittle-tattle about the action, most of it posted by new ancillary characters, without witnessing the thing itself.’ Whereas I’d be the first to admit that the live performances really enhanced my experience of the event, and that my opinion is wholly subjective in that I had experienced the play both offline and online, I’m unsure if Cavendish and others had been interacting with the Google+ community before the weekend had started, or had they even posted at all. That community had been there for quite a long time before the 21st June, with people from around the world posting and sharing content. Not only that, but the RSC had organised live Google Hangouts for people to watch in the run-up to the weekend, featuring contributions from director Greg Doran, actors performing in the show, and those who had interacted with the play through their work creatively and academically — so there had also been interactive content directly linking to the shows that were coming up. I had only joined the community a week or two before the performances, but posting in it encouraged me to be creative about what I posted, and to be creative about how I would interact with the play online. I can’t speak for those who couldn’t be in Stratford, but I honestly think that it was a project that the more you put in, the more you got out of it. I understand that some people would be happy just to see the shows. Some people are happy enough to share posts and look at the pictures online. But whatsoever way you chose, it welcomed an active response rather than a passive one.

This is one of many things I posted to the #dream40 community. It’s the closest I’ll ever come to being funny with Shakespeare.

I missed the performance of Act 1 on Friday (due to taking Sam aka WordOtter to his first RSC performance — it was Hamlet, fact fans), but I did catch the rest of the performances that followed. The next performance took place in the Ashcroft Room at 2.30am on Sunday morning, which took care of Act 2 to 4.1. It was limited seating, in a room full of windows and probably mainly used for rehearsal space (anyone who has been in the Ashcroft Room more often than I have, please feel free to prove me wrong), with limited props. Doran asked us to think of it as a ‘rehearsal’  — they had only been rehearsing it for the past week, and they were all in basic costumes — but it was a very, very good rehearsal if that’s so: special commendations to Peter de Jersey’s Oberon/Theseus, Alexandra Gilbreath’s Titania/Hippolyta, Joe Dixon’s Bottom, and Lucy Briggs-Owen’s Helena (and you, Robin Goodfellow, in your Mark Hadfield disguise). The fact that it was a select audience, that there wasn’t that many of us, lent a sense of mystique to the proceedings. To put it plainly: it’s very early morning in the forest, and while people are sleeping soundly in their beds, there’s some mischief going on here — and we’re the only ones who know what’s going on. And as intended, things wrapped up around 4am in the morning. Light was beginning to pour out of the windows in the Ashcroft Room. Stumbling outside of the Swan Bar, day had come. It was a nice touch.

(l-r) Peter de Jersey as Theseus, Joe Dixon as Bottom, Lucy Briggs-Owen as Helena, Mark Quartley as Lysander, Alexandra Gilbreath as Hippolyta. Foreground: Simon Manyonda as Demetrius. Also Hippolyta looks suspiciously like Titania. WHAT A COINCIDENCE.

The next afternoon saw Stratford preparing for Midsummer’s three weddings, so in Bancroft Gardens a fete was held, with food; cake to be decorated and, uh, other decorations to be made; and free music.  It might just have been the first wedding to have a donkey as a wedding cake.

CAYUK. I decorated two of the cupcakes surrounding it. I then learned that I am terrible when it comes to icing guns.

It was a rather nice way to spend a Sunday afternoon: for one thing, the kids taking First Dance lessons along with their parents has to be one of the cutest things ever. It may have been wet, yes. I don’t know whether it’s my nostalgia for picnic blankets and music festivals, but sitting with a massive group of people nestling near the stage (with picnic blankets, obviously) waiting for 4.2 to begin is not a bad way to spend your Sunday.

Waiting for the wedding to begin. Notice the fairy lights.

The performance of 4.2 was brief, as it had to be. The most interesting part was watching the rehearsal of 5.1, or what we could see of it until it got rained off. Not that it dampened anyone’s spirits: dear Sammy had to flee, but he was just happy that he got to see Greg Doran for the first time. Everyone’s first sighting of Greg Doran is always a happy time: just ask any Institute student. I regret that I don’t have any pictures of Joe Dixon in a ridiculous wig playing with kids. Ah well.

But we DO have a picture of Paul Chahidi (Peter Quince) wearing ridiculous spandex.

A part of me was slightly glad that the rehearsal got rained off before we could see the entirety of the final act being rehearsed: seeing as I was going to see it later that night, I prefer it when I don’t see what’s coming, and I like to be surprised. So maybe it was simply serendipity. Later that night, it was thankfully dry once more, but the Dell was illuminated with several torches and rugs lying on the ground for people to sit on. [My companion and I ended up sitting beside Antony Sher: I apologise for the babbling Mr Sher, it was just really exciting to meet you for the first time.] The atmosphere was warm, affectionate, and intimate. I’m sure so many people in the audience had seen Midsummer several times. Maybe some of them, like myself, were seeing it for the second time (the first had been the SI Players’ wonderful production, and I am not being biased just because I was in the revival). Or maybe some had never seen it before. Who knows. But the audience shrieked with laughter when Dixon as Bottom as Pyramus kissed Wall’s ‘stones’ (I’ll leave that to your imagination), when Jim Hooper’s lovably benign Starveling turned up, literally resembling the man in the moon, and when Pyramus began to unfurl yards of red ribbon as he died (and kept dying, for as long as he possibly could do so). And just as Doran and the cast had hoped, the bells of Holy Trinity began to ring as Theseus was about to say ‘The iron tongue of midnight hath told twelve’, leading to a massive cheer from the audience. It may have been another ‘rehearsal’ to use Doran’s phrase, but another one worth watching.

(l-r) Theseus (Peter de Jersey), Hippolyta (Alexandra Gilbreath), Bottom as Pyramus (Joe Dixon), Starveling as Moonshine (Jim Hooper).

But the one thing that stays with me, more than anything over the weekend, was the performance of Oberon and Titania’s blessing. Every single cast member moved towards the front of the performance space, Theseus and Hippolyta leading the way as they began to sing the blessing to the audience. Illuminated by the torches, each actor hummed, harmonised, or just sang along. A few of the Mechanicals got out small bottles of liquid and began to blow bubbles which floated into the air. Perhaps it was the light, perhaps it was the music, perhaps because it was that midnight atmosphere, but I felt incredibly moved by this. I guess you could say that the actors created a sense of communitas amongst us all, to steal the term from Victor Turner. I can’t account for every single audience member there, but I don’t think I’ll see a production of Midsummer quite like that one.

Although, the final performance raised questions about the advantages and disadvantages of performance spaces for such an experiment. As we were encouraged to take photos and update to Google+ or elsewhere with the hashtag #dream40, I had been doing so rather regularly throughout the weekend, as had several people attending the performances (the multiple photos, videos, and different perspectives became rather interesting to see as the weekend progressed). I had no problems with taking photos during the performances on Sunday morning and afternoon, but things became rather complicated during the final performance. For some reason I could not pick up the wifi on my iPad, so I resorted to using my tiny little smartphone with a not-so-smart camera to take pictures (which is why the night-time pictures look so blurry). Even though we were allowed to take pictures and update, the darkness and atmosphere somewhat inhibited me. It was hard to see any similar lights along the front row of rugs, but my phone was one source of quite, quite blinding light, so much that I kept accidentally blinding my companion with it (and then began to wonder if I had been doing the same to others). Maybe it was just the smart-phone, maybe it was my own sheer clunkiness and lack of subtlety in operating it, maybe it was my need to update during the performance instead of after as others had chose to. It does, however, ask questions as to which performance spaces can lend itself to such an initiative as #dream40, and which equipment and interfaces would lend itself well to it too.

The entire cast of Midsummer Night’s Dreaming, towards the end of the performance.

Regardless, I sincerely hope the RSC and Google do a similar project in the future — The Tempest, The Comedy of Errors, and Much Ado About Nothing could work particularly well in real-time, although the former would rely on Prospero and Miranda being shipwrecked on an island that also happened to have wifi — and I hope that they continue to experiment with the format. Maybe live-streaming would be the next thing to add, for instance. I just hope they don’t just stop there. Midsummer Night’s Dreaming allowed me to commune with others in the performance space and also online, and goodness knows there’s several ways in which one can mine that for creative advantages.

And there’s one for everyone in the audience(s): Macbeth and the ordinary spectator

Programme cover for Macbeth, Swan Theatre, 1999.

It’s the end of May and I’m almost a month into researching my masters dissertation. I’m writing on Greg Doran’s 1999 production of Macbeth at the Swan Theatre, and looking at it through two very distinct prisms: one is concerned with how the participants (actors, directors, etc) write, think, and remember it, and the other deals with different groups of audiences — critics, academics who either review it for publication or try to position it into the performance history canon, and lay audience members. This project germinated out of the fact that so many from the first set have written and/or talked about it so much — Harriet Walter wrote a short book about it in the Actors on Shakespeare series; Antony Sher has written extensively about it in Players of Shakespeare and in his very good autobiography, Beside Myself; and Greg Doran has given several interviews in print and elsewhere. To that end, I’ve become interested in how an actor or director’s memory works differently from someone who may not be intimately involved with the production at all — Peter Brook writes in The Empty Space about how, for the general spectator, memories of performance almost become images, like ‘silhouettes’, which for me describes my own way of remembering shows that I’ve seen in the past. They become narrowed down to one solitary image that stands out from the rest. I’ve mentioned to people that the one image that remains from seeing Propeller’s Richard III is the sight of Richard Clothier’s Gloucester standing alone onstage after becoming king, a crown on the stool near him. He begins to laugh — it’s a horrible, high, cold laugh — and the lights cut to blackout. It’s now the interval. Other shows have worked the same: it’s Cillian Murphy sporting a pair of homemade wings and hanging over scaffolding with a microphone in his hand, disco lights reflecting off his body, at the end of Misterman; Pippa Nixon serenading the audience (and Alex Waldmann) with a Wye Oak song while balloons flood the stage in King John; and more recently, the party that forms the end of As You Like It, as the revellers bounce around the stage singing and dancing. They’re completely wet but they’re deliriously happy, and every single time I watch it, their euphoria rubs off on me too (I will review it soon, promise).

This leads me onto the type of literature that I’ve been looking at lately. A fantastic introduction to audience studies is probably Helen Freshwater’s Theatre & Audience, which argues for the normal audience member’s inclusion in performance research. Freshwater makes a very valid point that relying on critics in order to ascertain the reaction to a particular show has its limitations. This is particularly glaring where Shakespearean performance is concerned, as critics come to a show with certain preconceptions and previous productions in mind (as much as I really don’t like Jonathan Slinger’s Hamlet, one gets tired of critics referencing the ‘advice to the Players’ when talking about his performance: see here and here). This is something that I will need to be conscious of when talking about those who were paid to come and watch Macbeth, whether to sell it to the public, discourage people from seeing it, or (if they were reviewing it for an academic publication) to generally discuss its successes and failures in an attempt to place it in dialogue with previous or concurrent productions of the same play. Or even similar or wildly different ones at that.

So what I want to figure out is what do ordinary audience members remember from this production (urgh, I hate using the word ‘ordinary’). What are the lasting images? If not, what are the sounds, the moments, the words that stick out in the memory? Do they, too, place this Macbeth in dialogue with the likes of Trevor Nunn’s 1976 production or other productions that they have seen? Do they compare Sher and Walter to other Macbeths and Lady Macbeths that they have seen, or measure them up by some general cultural consensus that determines what they ‘should’ be? (Obviously owing to her firsthand experience, Walter is especially good on Lady Macbeth’s cultural legacy: see Actors on Shakespeare.) Whether these memories are big or small, verbose or concise, they are welcome, and fascinating in any way. So, naturally, please get in touch. And generally, suggestions/ideas/comments are always welcome.

[P.S. I’m giving a paper on ‘Reading Shakespeare: Macbeth at the RSC and the actor’s account’ at this year’s BritGrad conference. Do come along if you’re interested in hearing yours truly yammer on about Sher and Walter for twenty minutes flat. I promise it will be interesting. Somewhat.]