Finding our inner child with Shakespeare at the Orange Tree Theatre

I have to declare an interest here as Henry Bell is a relative, that doesn’t make him any the less talented as a theatre director and shouldn’t stop me writing about how much I enjoyed my visit to the Orange Tree Theatre on Saturday morning for his lively and entertaining production of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream in a slimmed down but fully poetic realization of the play aimed at primary school children and a few discerning adults.

When it comes to Shakespeare, there’s no harm if we all search out our inner primary school kid and try to respond to his plays like children because the, mostly, young audience were enthralled and undaunted by this show without the production altering the text (apart from shortening it, of course)  or losing any of Shakespeare’s power or magic.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream is extraordinarily receptive to highly visual and physical interpretations and it came up shining again on Saturday.

These Orange Tree Theatre education productions of Shakespeare have always been lively and responsive to the new world that belongs to this generation’s children and are thus devoid of any pomposity or grandiose pretensions and full of visual gags – Old Will would have approved.

With a cast of only four professional actors doubling up most of the principal roles, there were also acting opportunities for some of the smaller members of the audience who have a few important lines to deliver as some of the acting “mechanicals”  and fairies and whose participation was always hilarious as much for their incongruous casting as from their acting skills. I particularly liked the 8 year old King Theseus, cast minutes before “curtain up” complete with his very trendy spectacles and intensely serious expression.

The old pros, well they weren’t that old, had a very busy time. Demetrius, the hapless Athenian lover (Will Dickie) was also an athletically physical Oberon King of the Fairies and a wonderfully subtle Peter Quince, the pedantic, earnest but passionate “rude mechanical” responsible for bringing the play-within-a-play to performance in front of the King and Queen. Helena (Victoria Grove) was the “tall” and much put upon of the two Athenian women and was perfect for the part and equally perfectly contrasted by the  “short” Hermia of Kate Kordel. Their row, always a highlight in this play, couldn’t have been better cast.  In this show though, Helena was also a raunchy as well as a truly proud  Titania, Queen of the Fairies and Hermia, sweetly girly at first but then frantically confused made some rapid but also complete transformations into a mischievously enthusiastic Puck- the ultimate eight year old primary school kid. David Ajao was the romantic Athenian lover Lysander but also a very visceral Bottom who lived up to his name with these productions customarily childish joy in bodily functions whilst also keeping his preposterous dignity as an ass with a wonderfully exaggerated vocal performance and elongated over-acting when Bottom stars in the “play-within-a-play.”

The funniest extended gag also worked brilliantly in bringing over Shakespeare’s meaning when the two Athenian men’s affections are magically transformed. Here they wake up with canine attributes, hilariously sustained but also vivid illustrations of Shakespeare’s ambivalent opinion of blind passion.
I laughed a lot.

We were all required to be woodland effects, humming, hooting, or whispering when the court-scene changed to dream-like wood. Again a truly Shakespearean moment created by our mumbles, a stage tree and some fairy lights. Minimal forces and maximum imagination – the essence of Shakespeare in the round.

The production continues to tour schools in the Borough of Richmond until it returns for one more show at the Orange Tree Theatre on Saturday 23 June. Go find your inner kid.

Henry Bell

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