Midsummer Mechanicals at Sam Wanamaker Playhouse
Shakespeare’s Globe and Splendid Productions have teamed up to produce a family production based around A Midsummer Night’s Dream‘s “play-within-a-play” by amateur troupe the Midsummer Mechanicals. In fact, it’s yet more layers of meta-theatre upon meta-theatre, with a first half in which Bottom, Quince and Flute (all from the original) and Patience (a superb addition brought to life by Melody Brown) discuss and rehearse a play they will perform, whose story, as it transpires in the second half, is a loosely rendered version of the Bard’s parallel plot line about the king and queen of the fairies. Phew! It’s quite a premise for anyone familiar with the masterwork – the experience is an innovative if brilliantly confusing ride – but it hardly matters what the grownups think, as Midsummer Mechanicals is an ideal introduction to Shakespeare for its target audience: the language, the fun, the imagination and deeper reflections on theatre itself.
In true 2022 style, there’s also a feminist message that’s obvious enough for even the most naive in the crowd; but while it’s still necessary, it’s still welcome, which was evident in the reaction. In any case, this element is grounded in the relevant point that respectable theatres of the period were not allowed to feature women (interesting for any viewers unaware of the fact), which allows for some typical moments of comedy while neatly allegorising more current issues.
Lucy Cuthbertson, Kerry Frampton and Ben Hales have between them written and directed a show that gives young theatregoers a taste of the real spirit of Shakespeare, incorporating just the right amount of bawdy humour, pathos and humanity with very little dumbing down of the glorious writing that makes the works so enduringly popular. The chance to peep behind the scenes of what a real Elizabethan production at the Globe might have felt like is also engaging for all ages, and not just because of the authentic setting. The opening act’s portrayal of the cast as they work through some artistic and practical snags has everyone in stitches, apparently unaware of the “difficult” vocabulary used onstage. That’s a feat in itself, made even more entertaining by the frequent opportunities for audience participation and resultant semi-improvisational style (a section in which youngsters are invited to invent insults for Weaver/Bottom and the King of the Fairies/Patience to hurl at each other is a perfect illustration of how accessible Shakespeare’s style and humour can be).
Accessible, though, is the name of the game here, and sadly a less than tolerant attitude from the cast and creative team left a bitter taste. This was not only a family show, but a “relaxed performance” (designed for young and neurodivergent audiences, and billed by the Globe as “embracing the democratic nature of our theatres”) – and yet a beautifully enthusiastic young man with autism and his mother were asked to leave during the interval because his occasional bursts of (always very relevant!) excitement were “distracting for the cast”. Wherever the complaint came from, it was a surprising and very disappointing reaction that the Globe really ought to address.
That important issue aside, this is top-notch stuff.
Midsummer Mechanicals is at Sam Wanamaker Playhouse from 3rd August until 21st August 2022. For further information or to book visit the theatre’s website here.