It’s been seventeen years since the Footsbarn Theatre performed in their native Britain. The international company of actors was established in 1971 and took up residence on a farm in France in 1991—still their home today. As is often their practice, the performance takes place under a big top, this time in the centre of Victoria Park. I have to confess dreading the thought of this as I arrive dripping wet and freezing cold as a result of the inclement English November weather. Thankfully a well-heated tent and a glass of mulled wine quickly wins me round.
The atmosphere of this intimate venue buzzes with anticipation, and is happily full of parents with young children—this in itself is a credit to Footsbarn. Perhaps the parents have heard about the company’s ethos on Shakespeare and other theatrical ‘classics’. On their website, they proudly claim their productions “transcend the barrier of language with [a] unique blend of visual theatre, music and magic.” Unfortunately for the actors, and even more so for those who cherish the very language being transcended, this is a little truer than one would like.
The action begins with a burst of exotic musical flavours, thanks to composer Maurice Horsthuis and musicians Pawel Paluch, Chandran and Kasia Klebba. Unusual instrumental combinations of sitar and bassoon, or bamboo flute, cello and drum add to the mystical feel of the production. The costumes, too, are sumptuous in design, magical and almost grotesque; so much so, a few of the younger children are startled into crying before even a word is spoken. This is perhaps not quite the desired effect, but is at least evidence of the fine work of mask designer Fredericka Hayter and Hannah Sjodin on costumes. Much good use of the theatrical space, moving in and around the seating areas, also helps to infuse the audience with the excitement of the spectacle.
Unfortunately, disappointment sets in. I have no qualms with attempts to make Shakespeare more accessible. It would also be fair to mention that my guest, who claims to have little knowledge of Shakespeare and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, thoroughly enjoyed the production with few of my own reservations. Perhaps I am too attached to the language itself to merely appreciate the visual spectacle, but I find it hard to appreciate a production of Shakespeare in which I cannot hear half of the words. Egeus’s opening lines are lost and unclear, as are Hippolyta’s. When Titania (Akemi Yamauchi) appears in a later scene, language barriers once again make many of her lines entirely inaudible, even with the knowledge of what should have been said. Helena’s words are audible on the whole, but sensible emphases and the flow of the pentameter are frustratingly awry.
Whilst it is admirable and pioneering for a travelling theatre company such as this to be truly international in its membership, the impact this has upon the language of the play is too grave.
To reinforce the nature theme that is the stronghold of this play, director Paddy Hayter takes Shakespeare’s words, “who would change a raven for a dove”, and creates a bizarrely avian theme around the lovers’ initial scene together, with a pigeon-like bristle of feathers confrontation between Demetrius (Vincent Gracieux) and Lysander (Paddy Hayter). Though the lovers have some moments of entertaining interaction, it is hard to feel any real emotions of passion and longing between them, not least because of Demetrius and Lysander’s distractingly advanced years. Caroline Piette as Hermia gives the most convincing performance of the four, whilst Muriel Piquart’s Helena is far too insincere in her emotions with slapstick facial expressions and pantomime gestures.
As can often be the case in productions of this popular play, the mechanicals swoop in to save the day. Whimsically and endearingly dressed, the players benignly slapstick portrayal is developed and extended with certain textual improvisation, presumably to be more inclusive for the younger members of the audience. The benevolent style of humour works well and is pleasantly entertaining, but with no interval, I found myself wishing on occasion for a less drawn-out approach to the humour of the scenes. Buck-toothed Bottom gives an original and jovial interpretation of the role and is a big hit with the children in the audience. His ass’s head is a highlight of the evening—marvelously large and furry, complete with mechanical mouth movements.
Joseph Cunningham’s Oberon is a refreshing injection of gravitas and crisp diction. His presence dominates the forest action as he sits high in the tree planted centre stage. Puck, too (Mas Soegeng), is full of exuberance and captures the imaginations of the youthful audience, yet his gruff, clumsy and bestial appearance is not the delightful nimble spirit of my imaginings.
Frighteningly goblin-like fairies, aging lovers and inaudible words make some aspects of this performance more of a nightmare than a dream, although the circus-like, fantastical entertainment certainly will catch the attention of some. It is an enjoyable enough evening if you fancy a new and original experience, but if you are going for the play’s linguistic qualities, you might be best to grab a copy of Midsummer yourself and read aloud.