In case anyone’s missed it, this year is the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death. To mark the life and achievements of one of our greatest Britons, the RSC has embarked on a massive and daunting task: a new production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, bringing together an ethnically diverse cast made up of professionals and amateurs to celebrate the universal scope of not only Shakespeare, but theatre in general.
It’s a risky project, fraught with challenges and potential pitfalls, but there’s no sign of nerves from the cast at the Marlowe, which includes members of local group the Canterbury Players and children from King Ethelbert School in Birchington. It seems unfair to label the newcomers ‘amateurs’, though; all take to the stage with such aplomb – in particular Lisa Nightingale, who almost steals the whole show as the RSC’s first ever female Bottom – that you’d think they’ve been performing with the company all their lives.
Director Erica Whyman has set the familiar tale in a crumbling, post-war Britain, a time of hardship but also of hope for a brighter future. As the nation prepares for a royal wedding, four lovers escape into the woods, and a band of amateur actors meet to rehearse a play. But little do they all know they’re entering a world of fairy magic and mischief, and that after this night, their lives will never be the same again. A Midsummer Night’s Dream is one of Shakespeare’s more accessible plays – there’s a reason we all studied it at school – and there’s plenty to enjoy for young and old audience members alike in this chaotic and colourful version.
In an excellent cast, Lucy Ellinson shines with her spiky-haired Puck. Clearly enjoying doing her master’s bidding and causing as much chaos as she can, she covers every inch of Tom Piper’s versatile set (and beyond) with seemingly limitless energy. There’s great physical comedy from the four lovers (Mercy Ojelade, Laura Riseborough, Chris Nayak and Jack Holden) as the men threaten violence and the women actually attempt it – and as Oberon and Titania, Chu Omambala and Ayesha Dharker bring a vibrant party atmosphere to their fairy realm.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a timeless and irresistible story about love, and the things we’re willing to do for it. Whether it’s romantic love, parental love or simply a love for our art, it can lead us into madness – but it can also inspire us to greatness. It’s fair to say there’s more than a hint of madness about the RSC’s epic scheme to create a Play for the Nation… but there’s plenty of greatness too – not just for those of us who already love Shakespeare but, more importantly, for the next generation of theatre lovers. Here’s to another 400 years!
A Midsummer Night’s Dream is at the Marlowe Theatre, Canterbury, until 23rd April.