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Reviews: Small cast, gender-blind, shows of ‘The Dream’ and Henry V (****)

Last weekend  (6th and 7th May) here in Edinburgh, we had a visit from Merely Theatre, touring productions of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and  Henry V.  My partner and I went to both shows, with high interest, because this is a gender-blind company, and we were curious to see how their productions would work out.

Before we get into the detail, let me say immediately that two shows were very exciting. We’ve given them four stars, but as my partner said, they’re gold stars!

A gender-blind company:

Let’s start with the company. They have 10 actors, and each show uses 5 of them.  Each role in a play (which of course includes more than one character) is taken on by a female and a male actor. For any particular show, the cast is made up of five of the 10 actors.  To make this a little less abstract, if you look at the two actors in the picture above (both of whom were playing in the shows we saw) they had the following roles:

On the left: Tamara Astor: in The Dream: Egeus, Helena, Fairy (with the accordian), Flute; in Henry V: Westmoreland , King of France, Bardolf, Alice
On the right: Emmy Rose: in The Dream: Hermia, Puck, Snug: in Henry V: Canterbury, Montjoy, Katherine, Boy

The cast on the shows  we went to consisted of 4 women and 1 man.

To make this double-casting work must require dedication and commitment from every member of the cast.

From an audience point-of-view, mostly due to the playing style, the gender of the actors became irrelevant pretty much as soon as the show started.

The plays:

Each play was cut quite hard, making a 1 1/2 hour performance.  It was hard to spot the bits cut – each felt like a full production – but I did notice that Titania / Oberon’s blessing of the house had gone, and most of the fairies. In Henry V, Fluellen seemed to have gone, and much of the argument, and resolution of it, between Williams and Henry, also was cut.

I am sure a lot of the cutting was to make a fast-paced show which kept the audience engaged. I suspect some of the cutting was to make it practical for five actors to play the play. There’s a cast of 48 for Henry V, and 22 for A Midsummer Night’s Dream, excluding spear carriers, fairies, and attendants. Many scenes have more than five people on stage at the same time, so it takes an inventive production to make this playable by five.

We’ve taken on this challenge ourselves with an adaptation of the Falstaff / Hal / Henry IV story called Gentleman of the Shade (you can find a script for that at Gentlemen of the Shade) which we put on with a cast of 7, (though castcards are supplied for 6, 7, or 8 players)  with some gender-blindness, in the Edinburgh Fringe in 2004, and which was well received by audience and reviewers.

So how does a cast of 5 play a Shakespeare play with, even in their cut versions, a cast of 16 characters (A Midsummer Night’s Dream), and 18 (Henry V)?

Merely Theatre’s approach adopts a number of key principles to make it work:

  • Costumes: Keep them as simple as possible. If it takes more than 5 seconds to take off, it’s too complicated. Some examples from the shows might help: In  ‘The Dream” the court was played in loose trousers and T-shirts; as were, if I remember correctly, the rude mechanicals. The fairies were allowed the luxury of a glittery shift on top of that. Football shirts (with number and character name on the back) distinguished between the English (in red) and the French (in blue)  in Henry V, with a variation for Nell and Pistol and his crew. Only Katherine, Princess of France, was allowed what might pass for a costume, a fetching blue dress, though  the most striking thing of her performance was the extraordinarily complex emotions which showed on her face as she stood down-stage centre, looking out at the audience as Henry courted her.
  • Set: again, keep the set as simple as possible. They used the same set for both plays: 5 ‘flats’ which were strong and stable enough to stand outside in a wind (I wonder if they ever do street performances?) with vertical green and blue canvas stripes. Plus a couple of light benches for people to sit on as required.

Merely Theatre indeed! If you don’t have elaborate costumes, you don’t use complex sets, what are you left with to make a show? Two things – the language and the actors, and it was here that the production shone:

  • The language: Of course they’ve got a rather good script-writer, but they showed a wonderful understanding of the language. My partner, who is even more interested in English literature than I am, was blown away by their quality of speaking, and I agreed with her.  I was particularly impressed with how well-worn phrases came out fresh-minted: in The Dream, Oberon’s ‘I know a bank where the wild thyme blows’ came out as a completely fresh bit of speech that it seemed I had never heard before. In Henry V; his  speech on Saint Crispin’s Day, had even this Scotsman moved with patriotic fervour.
  • The actors: with the very bare stage, the simple costumes, the physical movements of the cast to accompany the words,  become extremely important. The cast seemed filled with a boundless energy as they moved about the stage. As well as moving well and energetically, their hand and foot movements added wit, humour, and meaning to the words they were saying.

So an excellent performance which had the Edinburgh audience at A Midsummer Night’s Dream, cheering the performance, and even for Henry V, a patriotic English play, with some rude things to say about the Scots, the audience were charmed and smiling and enthusiastic in their applause at the end of the show.

But I’ve kept the best for the end. There was one more thing that they did, which raised the performance yet another level.

They kept the house lights on throughout the performance (except where the script demands darkness)! This allows the cast to engage with the audience. The fourth wall disappears as the cast can look out,  can come down and use the audience, and transforms the theatrical experience from something one watches, isolated in the darkness, to an experience where a group of people come and tell the audience a story.

Some examples  help: I’ve already mentioned Katherinea standing down stage centre looking out at the audience; the same actress – as Boy – came down stage centre and talked directly to the audience of her reservations about Pistol, Nym, etc; Bottom came into the audience to try out different colours of beard using the hair of members of the audience; exits and entrances could be into the wings or up the audience aisles; speeches were delivered onstage, in the audience, offstage; Puck was armed with a water-pistol from which the rest of the cast, and the audience suffered.

This style of play, is more similar to Shakespeare’s theatre, where the play is played in day-light. I’m used to the same style in promenade productions, outside, again in daylight.

There is a place, of course, for all types of production. I’ve reviewed a wonderful, high-energy prodcution of A Midsummer Night’s Dream by Propeller which shared a lot with this production, except that they kept the house lights off. I loved both productions, and there’s a place for both styles. When the house lights are off, it is possible to create an illusion on stage, but illusions lead to idealism. With the houselights on, we become aware of the actors as people, and engage with them, and their physical reality. Illusion flies out the window, or the fourth wall. Both styles have their place, but surely the style of keeping the houselights on is under-represented. We need more!

And as for the gender-blind issue – it’s a non-issue. In Shakespeare’s day, all roles were played by males. In our day, all roles can be played by human beings (with the possible exception of the bear in The Winter’s Tale 🙂 ), particularly when we adopt the style of a group of actors telling an audience a story.

Merely Theatre have created what is, for me,  a new way of performing Shakespeare’s plays. I can’t wait to see more! If you want to know more about Merely Theatre, their web-site as at: https://merelytheatre.co.uk/.

Let’s Play!

‘The Director’,
Players-Shakespeare.com
playersshakespearemffev5@gmail.com

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