Film aside, on Friday evening, I was a Shakespeare virgin. At my 1980’s Weston secondary school, the Bard was eschewed in favour of Beatles lyrics and gritty northern English contemporary fiction. A lucky escape, we thought.
So, let’s put the Bristol Old Vic to the test. Could they convincingly introduce Shakespeare’s best-loved comedy to a brand new audience? To someone who had heard of Bottom and Puck but new nothing else about A Midsummer Night’s Dream?
Britain’s oldest working theatre, newly refurbished, is a good place to start. The Old Vic has a Magic rarely matched and one feels that, viewed from these seats, anything at all would be a pleasure. Partner that with Handspring Puppet Company, the masters who brought us the much-acclaimed Warhorse, and this could get very interesting.
Puppetry in theatre is not new to me. My daughter and I are regulars at Tobacco Factory Theatre so we’ve seen plenty of dolls and paper skilfully manipulated. But planks of wood must be a first! And wood that flows, dances, speaks? What better way to bring love alive than with something so seemingly rigid, yet a material as vital to life as love itself?
Puppets, so many puppets: household items; small replica dolls of the human actors; giant, powerful, Wicker Man-like structures; plaster heads, mechanical contraptions. And, of course, a puppet is nothing if not handled with dexterity and expertise. The actors, on the whole, achieve this, though the use of the smaller dolls might be more fluid, more connected to the source. No matter, the overall effect is of awe, beauty and enchantment.
At the death of the play, I found myself counting the actors – were there really only twelve humans? Remarkable. Each and every one of them works diligently throughout the production to bring us movement and life, filling the space constantly. In fact, there’s so much to look at on this huge stage that it’s difficult to know where to place the eyes and some of the scenes might work better from more remote seats, so as to swallow it as A Whole.
Importantly, though I would never pretend to have understood every line (or even every scene), the cast illuminated the story for me and I never felt completely lost, surely everyone’s fear on approaching Shakespeare for the first time? There were moments of hilarity, according to my fellow audience, namely Bottom’s bottom and The Mechanicals’ slapstick. Personally, I couldn’t take my eyes from Saskia Portway (Titania/Hippolyta) and Naomi Cranston (Helena), two actors who encapsulated it the whole experience – obsession, magic and love.
Shakespeare, I am hooked.