The RJ Williamson Company
(Open Air Production)
Venue: Kirkstall Abbey Cloisters, Leeds
8th August 2002
5 / 5
Reviewed by:
Alex Waddington

It didnít look good at the interval. The umbrellas were up, and we were all eyeing up dry places, just in case the heavens opened for Act II. Some people had already donned their waterproofs, while others were forlornly trying to protect their sandwiches from going soft. The skies about Kirkstall Abbey looked grey and menacing; Shakespeare would have undoubtedly put it better. Not so much A Midsummer Nightís Dream as an early August nightmare.

Fortunately, even the delinquent British weather couldnít spoil a memorable evening of open air theatre, which saw a packed Ďhouseí positively revel in this much loved comedy. In fact, about twenty minutes into the second Act, as if by fairy magic, the heavy drizzle threatening to soak the front rows suddenly ceased - and everyone was left to enjoy an outstanding night of magic and mischief.

Set in ancient Athens, the story of A Midsummer Nightís Dream is comically confusing; as Theseus, Duke of Athens (Robert J Williamson) and Hippolyta, Queens of the Amazons (Sarah-Jayne Steed) prepare for their wedding, news comes from Egeus (John Ioannou) that his daughter Hermia (Anna Delchev) is refusing to marry her suitor, Demetrius (Gordon Kemp).

She prefers the company of Lysander (Tama Matheson), and the two promptly elope into the woods, where spirits and fairies lurk. In the meantime, Helena (Erin Christy), who is in love with Demetrius, tries to curry his favour by telling him of Hermiaís flight. Demetrius immediately sets off after Hermia, with the besotted Helena in hot pursuit.

Elsewhere in the wood, a rag-tag bunch of local artisans are practising a play, which they hope to perform on the Dukeís wedding day. As they rehearse "most obscenely", a mischievous spirit called Puck (Wayne Sleep) indulges in a spot of magic - and the fun and farce really begins.

Watching open air theatre is a very unique and intimate experience, and comes highly recommended. Seated just an armís length away from the actors, you can practically sniff the greasepaint. Small emotions and expressions, usually lost in the expanse of modern theatres, are laid bare for you to ingest and interpret.

Of course, being set almost entirely outdoors, A Midsummer Nightís Dream lends itself beautifully to open air theatre. And how nice it is to hear raw voices, untainted by booming amplification, with the actors forced to pit their projection skills against the vagaries of natural ambience. The lighting is simple and the set minimal, with occasional and thoughtful use of sound. Pyrotechnics are used to provide a memorable finale.

Productions of A Midsummer Nightís Dream always tend to be slow starters, and this one is no exception. But as the plot thickens, the cast really get into their stride. From the four young lovers, Delchev shines like a beacon, giving a wonderfully animated and passionate performance as Hermia.

Those who love this play for the amusing antics of Nick Bottom will certainly not be disappointed, although the excellent Derek Crewe doesnít portray him as the usual loveable clown. With rolling Welsh accent, Bottom is aloof and scornful, with an elevated opinion of himself. The amusement flows from his self-delusion, failings, muddles - and a hairy encounter with the mischievous Puck.

And what a Puck; casting Sleep as the naughty nimble spirit is undoubtedly a masterstroke. He flits around the expansive venue effortlessly, at times demonstrating some breathtaking ballet skills. He is no less effective as an actor either, enticing the audience into the plot with an enchanting and impish performance.

This production is also memorable for some outstanding cameos. As Snout the tinker, Christopher Mellows canít have more than a few dozen lines, but still manages to put the audience into hysterics through his actions and expressions. Likewise, as an oily and smug Philostrate, Richard Costello makes a lasting impression, despite being on stage for just a matter of minutes. Natasha Kemball is also devastating as Cobweb, flaunting a singing voice that sends a shiver down the spine.

As co-directors, Williamson and Frank Jarvis are to be loudly applauded. The RJ Williamson Companyís aim is to encourage a wider cross section of society to embrace and enjoy Shakespeareís work, and the pair certainly arenít afraid to use slapstick methods and high farce to achieve these ends.

But whatís even more commendable is the way Williamson and Jarvis have directed the cast to pay close attention to the delivery of dialogue, using strong emphasis and exaggerated actions to communicate the meaning of the lines. Willamsonís personal triumph is even greater when you consider he takes on the role of Fairy King Oberon, in addition to Theseus.

Sadly, despite her top billing, Rebecca Ritters - best known as Hannah Martin from TV soap Neighbours - fails to cut the mustard as Peaseblossom, and one canít help wondering whether her inclusion is merely a publicity stunt. She will undoubtedly improve with experience, but among this much talent she stands out like a very sore thumb.

Copyright J A Waddington 2002. For syndication rights, please email.

Stuff to buy:

A Midsummer Night's Dream Text
Used by RSC

A Midsummer Night's Dream
York Notes Advanced

A Midsummer Night's Dream : For Kids
Lois Burdett

A Midsummer Night's Dream VHS [1999]
Directed by Michael Hoffman

A Midsummer Night's Dream DVD [1994]
Directed by: Adrian Noble (RSC Production)

A Midsummer Night's Dream VHS [1981]
Benjamin Britten's opera
Directed by: Peter Hall  

A Midsummer Night's Dream
Animated version
Directed by: Nikolai Serebrinkov

Britten - Midsummer Night's Dream CD [1990]

Britten - A Midsummer Night's Dream CD [1993]

Mendelssohn: A Midsummer Night's Dream CD

Mendelssohn-A Midsummer Night's Dream CD [1986]
Incidental music
Conducted by Andrew Previn

A Midsummer Night's Dream: Original Soundtrack
[IMPORT] [1999]