A Midsummer Night’s Dream performed by the Pantaloons – raucous fun blown away by the wind

A little over a year ago my parents mentioned that there was a performance of Much Ado Ado About Nothing at Smallhythe Place, and asked if I wanted to go. As a fan of Shakespeare, I said that of course I would, but I had no idea what I was in for in watching the Pantaloons production. The Pantaloons are a travelling stage company who specialise in comedic interpretations of various stories – since I was left in hysterics at the performance of Much Ado About Nothing, I have seen them also perform The Importance of Being Earnest, and have heard of them performing Pride and Prejudice as well, both with the same reaction from the crowd, everyone entralled by their comedic abilities. So when I found out that they were performing A Midsummer Night’s Dream, my favourite Shakespeare play, at Hall Place, I was very excited.

However, the day came, and there was one key issue: the wind. The Pantaloons largely perform outdoors, meaning that they are, to an extent, slaves to the weather. The wind really didn’t help them in this case – there were parts of it that I struggled to hear, sitting around four rows back to the side (being open air, people brought their own chairs or picnic blankets, so this is a rough estimate of space). The way they were positioned didn’t help – there was a wall that they could have positioned themselves against to help the audience to hear better. As they ran around the audience, stealing people’s picnics, and came closer to this wall, it was far easier to hear them, but this may have been just that they were speaking louder due to being amidst the audience.

The show was also the victim of the traffic around the venue. Hall Place is next to a very busy road, and so the actors were fighting with the noise of various vehicles going past, including no fewer than two police cars. The company was very professional throughout, using their great improvisational skills at various points to turn these issues into part of the comedy of the play with great skill, without a hitch or a pause in flow.

The wind and the traffic were in no way the fault of the company, of course, it was just such a shame that there were these issues that hampered the performance. A fair number of people actually left at the interval. I have to admit, if I did not already know the story, I would probably have had no clue what was going on, as was the case with a few members of the party I went with. The doubling of characters confused this as well – they had different accents, and slightly different clothes, but it would have been difficult to hear these accents if you were any farther back than we were, and therefore hard to distinguish between many of the characters.

The actual performance was absolutely amazing, and reminded me how much I love the Pantaloons and their hilarious interpretations of Shakespeare. The use of an audience member as Hippolyta, and the subsequent performance of a song based on audience submissions of various romantic things (pet names, places, and tv shows) was highly amusing, and went down very well with the whole audience. The comedy of the rude mechanicals was also very well exaggerated in a way that was very funny to a modern audience – I desperately wanted a t-shirt that said ‘Pyramids and Frisbee’ but alas, I did not have the cash. The performance of the whole company was good, but for me, the performance of Kelly Griffiths was standout. I have seen her in multiple shows before and the range of expressions her face goes through in one performance always leaves me in awe (and fits of giggles).

There was only one aspect of the performance that I thought didn’t work so well, and that was in the final section of the play. The performance of Pyramus and Thisbe is a comedic highpoint of the play, and is made by the comments of the various characters watching. Due to the very nature of the Pantaloons, having only five members of the cast and doubling a lot of the characters, this wasn’t possible, so the cast member playing Theseus, who also played Snout and Puck, went into the audience once his part playing the wall as Snout was over dressed as Theseus and said only around half of the lines, and as they weren’t in conversation they didn’t have the same comedic effect. The point of the performance of Pyramus and Thisbe seemed to be slightly lost, and my poor Mum, who went in with zero knowledge of the plot, was very confused as to what was going on at that point. In the whole play though, this is my only criticism, and this again was out of the hands of the company in a way, due to the very nature of their performances.

Overall, a thoroughly enjoyable production that had me laughing right the way through – I can’t wait to see the production of The War of the Worlds in the Spring!

Twelfth Night at Shakespeare’s Globe – A disco in the highlands

A few weeks ago, a couple of my friends decided on a whim that they were going to go to see a show at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in London. Being so close to London myself, and having never seen a show at the Globe, I felt I could hardly turn it down. The atmosphere of the Globe is amazing, and if you are able to I would highly recommend getting a ticket at £5 for standing in the yard, which is what we did, and we thoroughly enjoyed the show.

The show opens on a cruise ship of some sort, and from the music and the dress, it is clearly Shakespeare with a seventies twist. This may sound strange, but somehow, it worked. Sebastian danced onto the stage in white platform boots and flared trousers, and Viola joined him in a sparkling purple jumpsuit. What’s not to love?

But then, as the twins were shipwrecked, it became clear that Illyria is only Illyria by name, and is in fact, Scotland. Duke Orsino, his court, and Sir Hugo all wear kilts, and Orsino dances to a song (supposedly of his own composition) with a Scottish folk music feel. The combination sounds bizarre, but it works so well, especially with the comedic ability of the actors.

The script was fantastic. Shakespeare’s original dialogue was peppered throughout with added lines, with exceptional delivery by all of the cast, providing extra comedy, bringing the story to the more modern audience.

All of the cast was fantastic, but there were three stand out performances.

Malvolio was played with such great characteristation, as Katy Owen made her own clear stamp on the character. I watched (and loved) her in the livestream of A Midsummer Night’s Dream from the Globe last year, playing Puck, but seeing her act in person was even more phenomenal. The energy she brought to Malvolio was unlike any I have ever seen, but at the same time it fit so well. Even the way Owen ran around the stage sent the whole theatre into fits of giggles.

Another stand out performance of the cast was that of Sir Andrew Aguecheek, played by Marc Antolin. The combination of the fantastic costume design of Lez Brotherston, the direction of Emma Rice, and the performace of Antolin, resulted in a character that no-one in the audience could fail to find amusing. Despite his interest in marrying Olivia, mentioned only a couple of times, he was clearly portrayed as a gay stereotype in his dress, his strength (or lack thereof), and his whole manner. And here begins my problem with the performance.

Despite being a performance for Pride Month at the Globe, featuring a rainbow design to demonstrate this both within the design on the front of the programme for this play, and the poster for the whole season, there seemed to be a distinct lack of LGBTQ+ representation. The play of Twelfth Night has a huge potential for LGBTQ+ representation in various ways. For example, Orsino can clearly be read as bisexual, in that he loves Viola whilst she is Cesario. This is played on a bit in the performance, but it could be done more explicitly in my opinion. One aspect with huge potential that was just ignored was the potential for relationship between Antonio and Sebastian. Antonio tells Sebastian that he loves him, but this is completely ignored. There is the great potential in those few lines to present a gay character that is not a male gay stereotype, but is instead just a character who happens to be gay, and yet the lines pass without note. Having said all this though, I must mention the performance of Le Gateau Chocolat as Feste. He was simply phenomenal in the role, and his vocal range was awe-inspiring.

The only other issue I had with this production was the use of the same actors as a sort of chorus, dressed in white overalls and t-shirts, when they were not themselves in the action, for example to pull the bed Malvolio was on around the stage. This almost drew me out of the performance, reminding the audience that this was a performance on the stage, and the actors were merely actors. When the performance from each actor was so amazing, it felt bizarre to see them in what was effectively a different role within the same production.

Overall, the performance was a joy to watch, save for a few minor issues, and I wish I could go and watch it again for the first time!

The Value of Comedy

After being set yet another text to read on my degree course about dark, depressing topics, I began to wonder why it is that we never study anything happy. This is not the first time I have considered this – my course mates and I actually asked the lecturer we had for the first half of this term whether she would set any short stories with an upbeat tone. She thought about it, and admitted that no, she hadn’t set any happy short stories, and the fact that this was not a conscious decision made me think about it even more.

There is a general trend through the study of literature to study texts that explore darker themes, with sad endings. In my sixth form, I studied a total of twelve texts, and one of them – The Importance of Being Earnest – was a comedy. The rest consisted of five tragic plays, two novels with murder as a central, recurring action, two poetry collections exploring the futility of life and the sad state of society today, and one graphic novel about the Holocaust. Delightful. Then at GCSE, it was Of Mice and Men and An Inspector Calls that we studied, To Kill a Mockingbird before that, etcetera, etcetera. But why is this? It seems as if we almost give texts that are tragic a higher value, but why?

It could be considered that texts that are comedies are seen as having less value, as they aren’t necessarily texts that we think about afterwards. When the curtain goes down at the end of All My Sons after the gunshot, the audience are left thinking about the morality of the characters’ actions, and how they could have reached a less tragic conclusion to the one that they have seen. But when the curtain goes down at the end of The Importance of Being Earnest, the audience are left smiling, maybe talking with the people that they are with about the hilarity of some of the scenes. This difference does not mean that Wilde’s play does not include explorations of themes related to humanity, but instead that these explorations are not as often noticed. In this instance, the only way to give more value to comedies is to give them literary value, in a sense, by studying them more widely.

Do we feel that if we take simple enjoyment from a piece of art, it is worth less than something that leaves us churned up inside? This idea could be less wacky than it sounds – think of popular fiction. More often than not now, a text being ‘popular’ means that it is less valuable, ‘popular fiction’ is used as a derogatory term by some literary scholars and snobs. But how does that make any sense – surely a text being more popular means that it’s better?

Or is it simply that we view comedy as trivial? To do this would in itself be stupid – it will be the comedy produced now that will clearly portray to people of the future the attitude towards politicians, celebrities, and culture at large. Think of the representations of Donald Trump seen on Saturday Night Live and the Tonight Show in the USA, and how so many of our most famous comedians have used Brexit and the US Election as fuel for their latest routines. It is this that are the clearest representation of the populous’ current opinion of the state of the world, and whilst that can be taken from tragedy, comedy, at least today, has more immediacy than its counterpart.

One of the comments that I remember in our lectures on Shakespeare last term was made by our lecturer comparing A Midsummer Night’s Dream to other Shakespeare plays. She pointed out how cleverly crafted the whole play is, how the characters have to be on and off stage at just the right times for the doubling of roles that more often than not occurred. It was clear how planned the play was, and how it also made points about members of Shakespearean society. Hamlet, by contrast, is a train wreck. There is no way that Shakespeare started off with a plan in writing it, better to just kill everyone off. Now whilst I’m not in anyway saying that Hamlet is not a good play (I love it and the characters more than you can know) it is strange that it is studied so much more than the masterpiece that is A Midsummer Night’s Dream – the latter is more of an ‘introduction to Shakespeare’ play that you study in year seven and never consider again, moving on as you mature to the more ‘serious’ topics.

Whilst I don’t deny that the darker themes explored within a lot of tragedy need to be shown to the world, it would be strange to say that comedy cannot also explore these themes, and sometimes in a very interesting way. Why not study a tragedy, and compare it with a comedy that contains the same themes, and see how the two different genres explore the themes differently? Surely that’s more interesting that comparing two explorations of a theme from the same genre – but I may be speaking too subjectively.

My brother actually gave up studying English Literature at A Level because ‘everything was too depressing’. I’m not saying that we should completely cut out the tragedy, but some variety would be nice.

And hey, as a writer, I know how difficult good comedy is to write. So can we please just give it a bit more of a chance?