A Midsummer Night’s Dream is probably my favourite Shakespeare comedy. I have fond memories of playing Demetrius in a production several years ago, and I know how much hard work goes into ensuring that the pace and choreography is on point, in order to make the play as accessible and humorous as possible for modern audiences.
The rain lashed down as I drove through bush, through brake and brier, from Cardiff to Caerphilly, and I found it curious that the first Shakespeare production my girlfriend would see was a summery text quite at odds with the despicable Welsh weather. But it was considerably warmer inside Newbridge Memo, a magnificent Grade II listed building complete with ballroom and, on the uppermost floor, a gorgeous theatre with lovely staff members. The Marvellous Pretenders are a newly formed theatre company founded last year by Suzie Rees. What is truly attractive about this company is that they aim to produce plays that link to the English and Drama GCSE and A Level syllabus.
I didn’t know what to expect from this production, so I waited eagerly for the curtains to open and reveal the proscenium stage. I found my right eyebrow twitching somewhat at Theseus and Hippolyta’s costumes, which resembled something from a school nativity play. Moreover, the acting performances in the first half were variable; some of the players overacted, sawed the air with grand gesticulations, whereas others underacted, not evincing enough energy in crucial moments and not quite projecting enough. Some aspects of the first half of the play simply did not work. The fairy lullaby was a muddle, and I found it peculiar that Oberon’s long speeches (containing such vivid images as a mermaid singing on a dolphin’s back) were not sent to the barbers, given that Puck demonstrably mocked their showy nature.
The curtains closed for the interval, and I didn’t know quite what to make of the production. Some elements, such as the slapstick, rather modern comedy, really worked and should have been emphasised, whereas the play sometimes felt low on energy. Some of the performances were very enjoyable, including Steve Purbrick as Theseus/Oberon, Jeremy Linnell as Puck, and Karim Bedda, who gave a particularly assured performance as Lysander. However, the cues needed to be picked up quicker, especially as many of the lines have an incantatory rhyming quality, and the business between fairies and lovers required sharper choreography.
Many of my quibbles dissipated when the play resumed. It was like a different cast were on stage. A production like this, with an evidently low budget, should give emphasis to the cheesiness and pantomimic potentialities of this play. On many occasions in the first half, the cast and director had come close, but in the second half (particularly the last quarter) the nail was firmly hit on the head. The Mechanicals’ production of Ovid’s Pyramus and Thisbe narrative is so naff (here Shakespeare seems to poke fun at his own tragic work, as well as the bombastic tragic diction of plays such as the anonymous Locrine, and the works of George Peele, although the passage concerning ‘the raging rocks and shivering shocks’ has long been recognised as a parody of John Studley) that it’s hilarious, and it is fitting that this scene was the highlight of the evening. The cast were simply brilliant during the play-within-the-play; the humour (such as Francis Flute’s breast hypertrophy) was crude, the slapstick elements were played to their full potential (Chris Chandler-Williams’s Nick Bottom had the audience in stitches) and, most commendably, all of this was done during a fire alarm that threatened to end the performance early (twice!). I take my hat off to the actors, who showed a great deal of professionalism in coping with the sort of nightmarish situation every actor has dreamt of at least once. My girlfriend understandably struggled with some of the language in this play, but she too found the second half to be hilarious, and I felt a sense of warmth and joviality walking into the rain-swept streets that told me Marvellous Pretenders had done a decent job.
Such companies are very important for local communities and performing arts as a whole, and I wish them all the best as they take on future classic plays and the works of local authors. The passion for theatre, and the willingness to endure the sort of bad luck one might expect in a production of Macbeth, was encapsulated not only by the fire alarm going off twice but also by founder Suzie Rees, who broke both ankles and had to perform in a somewhat squeaky wheelchair. A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a chaotic play, with confused lovers, mischievous fairies and therianthropic humans. This was a chaotic production, but I think it worked as a result, and I wish to thank Newbridge Memo and Marvellous Pretenders for a thoroughly enjoyable evening.