This production by Action to the Word was part of the theatre offerings at this year’s Latitude festival, in Suffolk on the south-east coast of England. The production is at an early stage in its development, with a tweaked version of the production planned for the National Theatre in London on 6 August. It wasn’t overly apparent in this performance, and yet they made good use of the festival's relaxed atmosphere to push the boundaries and experiment with the ideas and concepts they had chosen to explore through the production; the result is a risqué and exciting couple of hours.
Latitude is a broad arts festival, styled like a music festival but offering much more — an impressive music line-up, comedy, literature and poetry tents, a cabaret line-up, children's and teenager’s zones, and a theatre arena.
The festival site, which is renowned for its beautiful lake, also contains a number of sylvan nooks and crannies where small stages and experimental immersive theatre acts can be found. In amongst the trees at the far end of the site lies the theatre arena — a large blacked-out tent with a sizeable raised stage and raked seating.
The busy auditorium was presented with a fairly sparse set, which had a distinctly industrial feel; this was, no doubt, partly a result of the logistical limitations of the festival setting. That said, as the two scaffold structures on stage echoed the metal pole structure of the tent itself, the design seemed in-keeping. Alongside the angular scaffolding, a singular piece of cream cloth hung from the light-rigging frame down onto the stage, later to be used for acrobatics, but otherwise offering a soft contrast to the domineering metal structures. Effective lighting throughout helped to enhance the set and give a finesse to the performance as a whole.
When there are so many Much Ados staged each year, I am always pleased when a production (successfully) tries to explore something new within the play or makes you think anew about a character’s nature. This production, although with some work still left to do in some areas such as the nuances of Bottom’s performance, was compensated for with good direction and a focus on the battle between good and evil.
There are some apposite assignments of roles, including Hermia’s father who plays this small role wonderfully (and drunkenly in the wedding scene); indeed, Helena looks and performs the part exceptionally well. My main disappointment is the ever-crucial casting of Bottom. Stevie Raine gives a strong and competent performance, but he simply doesn’t embody the role to its fullest — he is perhaps too good at ‘acting’ when Bottom performs and rather too suave for this humble, weaving buffoon. It is, perhaps, a role that needs settling into and may well improve as the production matures and moves to the National.
As mentioned earlier, a central focus of this directorial approach seems to be the exploration of representations of good and evil within the play. Certain decisions have been made about key characters, and their moral status is shown to the audience through the colours of their costumes; those that are basically ‘good’ in Athenian white togas for the most part and those deemed ‘bad’ in black garments. What is thought-provoking about this approach, though, is the way it accentuates the areas of grey in these supposedly black-and-white characters. This concept was most readily explored within the fairy kindgom. For example, Oberon appeared throughout dressed all in black. Although many of his actions are reprehensible, Corin Stuart’s portrayal showed numerous chinks of light where thoughtful and temperate characteristics were able to shine through.
Titania is surprisingly clothed in white at the start (I rather preferred a feistier equal to Oberon’s trickery), we see her transformed into black S&M gear as she ties up the enchanted Bottom, proceeding to have raunchy intercourse with him up against the scaffold frame. Although it didn’t feel gratuitous in nature, this much darker approach to this scene explains the 14+ age restriction for audience members. Puck, as one might expect, appears all in black throughout and is portrayed as the least morally complex of the fair kingdom. Indeed, he is portrayed as something little short of a maniacal psychopath, who takes pleasure from other’s pain — a truly menacing character, an approach I felt worked extremely well.
The monochromatic approach to costuming is only broken for a couple of minor roles, even some that weren’t Shakespeare’s. Cupid appears in ruby red clothes and roller skates at the start the play to indroduce the story by showing the ‘bolt of Cupid’ being fired and landing on the flower ‘love in idleness’. This key plot device worked very well.
Jonno Davies’ Lysander showed particular strength while under the spell of Puck’s potion, although he seemed more caught up in lust rather than love. Similarly, when both Lysander and Demitrius (Wes Lineham) are bewitched and fighting over the bemused and bespectacled Helena (Olivia Bromley), they present a well-paced comical performance. There is a good use of movement and a well-timed shift in speed.
For a production in its early stage of development, I found it already a complex and thought-provoking work. The pushing of boundaries, such as in the love scene between Titania and Oberon, and Puck’s dark, psychotic tendencies force the audience to explore the nuanced boundaries of ‘good or bad’ in this most-often light-hearted play. The strong and confident directorial hand of Alexandra Spencer-Jones was apparent, creating a production that challenges and rewards the audience in equal measure — making this audience member look forward to seeing the production in its next evolution at the National Theatre.