Despite the early start, a healthy crowd of families gather ‘round to see the opening performance of Open Air Theatre’s re-imagination of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, specially adapted to introduce Shakespeare to children aged six and over.
Based on the theme of a traditional children’s playroom, the characters appear as rag dolls, toy soldiers, clowns and music box dancers surrounded by alphabet blocks, toy drums and a large toy box. The prologue, lead by the friendly and inviting Bottom (Dale Superville) works well to lay the plot and to as clearly as possible explain the complex relationship between the four young lovers. From the very start, a relationship is established between actor and audience through interchange and audience participation. Bottom is by far the most-loved of the characters in this production, apparent in the eyes of children and adults, alike.
Unsure about just how much Shakespeare would remain in this re-imagined Dream, I was surprised that, following the prologue, nearly all dialogue is the original text. The entire cast is careful to emphasise the language in such a way to make it as clear as possible for the younger than usual audience, including greater use of gesture and physical expression. My seven year old companion assured me it is easy to follow the plot, not seeming to find the language a barrier at all.
Puck (Matthew Hart), dressed like an acrobatic clown, gives a particularly captivating performance, grabbing the attention of the young audience as his ballet-inspired movements take him sneakily in and around each scene. Hart cleverly creates a convincing atmosphere of mysticism around the character.
The production also encourages introducing children to acting, with about a half dozen taking on small roles such as Moonshine and Wall. As well as a good way to encourage involvement in Shakespeare at a young age, director Dominic Leclerc’s production also provides much impromptu entertainment. Particular highlights in this performance include a fairy’s shocked exclamation as Bottom’s donkey tail falls off whilst climbing into bed, and mischievous Moonshine who spends the entirety of his theatrical debut wildly and perilously swinging his lantern to and fro, much to the anxiety and amusement of the actors and the adults in the audience.
Pyramus and Thisbe’s play within this playtime is the climax of the production, and what a highlight it is. Superville’s humorously drawn out death scene as Pyramus leaves the audience in fits of laughter, and is a wonderful introduction to Shakespeare’s trademark protracted death scenes in a theatre filled with giggling enthusiasts.
A perfect play to choose for such an adaptation and a noble endeavour, this production is enjoyable and accessible for children, even as young as they suggest, and aside from its educational virtues, it also acts as a wonderfully innovative piece of light, vivid, playful entertainment.