When a friend phoned me on a rainy afternoon and offered me a spare ticket to A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Royal Exchange, I jumped at the chance to see some Shakespeare in one of my favourite theatres. I did not know what I was letting myself in for.
Dream is one of those Shakespeare comedies that is performed endlessly. It attracts the regular crowds and rarely strays away from fairly traditional presentation. However, Filter Theatre achieved something magical and rebellious in this production. Never before have I left my seat wondering if I had actually fallen asleep and dreamt the whole thing.
The plot follows four young lovers as they wander into a forest at night and enter into an entanglement of magic flowers, fairies and, in this production, a pop-up tent and a six pack of Fosters. One of the Mechanicals, Peter Quince (Ed Gaughan) successfully set the tone at the opening of the play with a stand-up routine in modern English, explaining that Sir Ian McKellen was stuck in the elevator and that the part of Bottom would have to be played by an “audience volunteer” (Fergus O’Donnell).
Filter has a strong cast of both musicians and actors, allowing huge amounts of versatility. The Mechanicals, for instance, sat on stage playing instruments and creating a soundscape with two computers and multiple microphones. Fairies were created by voice manipulation of actors speaking into microphones at the side of the stage. An ardent traditionalist when it comes to Shakespeare, I was initially doubtful, but this choice to hide nothing from the audience created a thoroughly modern play, which felt slightly like a mash-up of a poetry reading and a rock concert.
His performance and comic timing were flawless, and his character personified the mad freedom of the production itself.
Despite my gleeful surprise, I couldn’t help finding a slight flaw in the adaptation of the text: mainly that a lot of it seemed to be missing. It was wonderful to see a play performed in under two hours, and a successful merge of modern and Shakespearian English, but I can’t help but feel that a little too much of the original text had been cut. Filter Theatre are achieving something wonderful in creating a play that would appeal to younger audiences as well as Shakespeare veterans; the giant food fight involving bread and boxes of cereal was enjoyed by all. But if you don’t know the play inside out, it would be possible to miss the playwright’s original intentions.
Literary qualms aside, it was obvious that the actors knew their Shakespeare. Director Sean Holmes said of his actors, “[they] have all done ‘proper’ Shakespeare, so you know they’re all capable of speaking the verse properly.” This is the truth: the cast exhibits a high level of training. Gemma Saunders as Hermia and Rebecca Scroggs as Helena both adopted their characters with ease. They were somewhat overshadowed by John Lightbody’s highly entertaining performance as Lysander, but this was matched by Rhys Rusbatch’s Demetrius. As far as comedy was concerned, nearly all the actors were aided by the fairy love potion’s true nature -blue paint-, by the end of the show all victims of the fairies’ interference looked so comical it prompted a laugh whenever they appeared.
The play ran between July and August, and proved that alternative interpretations of Shakespeare are just as warranted as the traditional. Filter’s modernisation really works in this instance due to the use of sound; it is completely intelligent in every respect, and as increasing amounts of technology are present in our everyday lives, it’s an obvious progression for classical theatre. Ferdy Roberts, Co-Artistic Director of Filter, says “using an eight-strong ensemble doesn’t mean we’ve smashed the play to pieces; it’s just that with the use of sound, and sound design, […] we can play around creating different landscapes”. A modern audience is wholly able to cope with the leap of faith between the computers they see on stage and the imagination needed to create magic.
After coming to terms with the sheer anarchy of this production, I am convinced that in fact, this is exactly the sort of intuition that Shakespeare himself would approve of. The adaptation perfectly captures the madness and comedy at the centre of the play, and Puck’s closing words, “If we shadows have offended,/ Think but this (and all is mended)/ That you have but slumber’d here, / While these visions did appear” were never more relevant.