A Midsummer Night's Dream

The Festival Players, outdoor venues around the UK, 2013

August 13, 2013
Cogges Farm, Tue 13 August 2013

These guys are a lot of fun. They have the fire and enthusiasm of a wacky amateur group and the slick proficiency of very tough professionals. The two Festival Player companies are formed newly each year after some highly competitive auditions, and, after only two weeks of rehearsals, each group of six actors is sent out on its own in a van, taking a portable stage and few props to a series of one-night shows all over the country. As well as doubling, tripling and quadrupling roles on stage, the actors have to be their own stage managers, front of house, drivers, orchestra and so on. The whole thing must be very like it was back in 1594 before theatre got respectable.

So what was it like with an all-male cast? Brilliant, actually, mainly due to the presence of Christopher Finn, who has an amazing voice which he seems to be able to flip between genders at will. His disturbingly convincing Hermia lifted the cross-gender element out of the realm of panto dame and into something which I felt really gave me an insight into what it must have been like in Shakespeare's day, when Margaret, Cordelia, Cleopatra and the others would have been played by convincing female impersonators. He alternated this (via some lightning costume changes) with being a Puck something between a cherub and a cat, a disgruntled Starveling and the main guitar player for the musical bits.

The play has been lightly hammered into a 2 hour show, with all the best bits left in. I heard a couple for whom this had been their first Shakespeare exposure discussing it afterwards, and they were happily expressing surprise that it had been so easy to follow. That's something the company should be very pleased to know: their goal, according to the artistic director's statement, is to deliver Shakespeare in a "style which is engaging, crystal clear, entertaining, and dispels the frequent boring memories of his works from school".

The music, costumes and props have a similar feel of professional practicality: simple but with a certain proud effectiveness: no fancy frills but nothing left to suggestion either. Fairies are togas, bronze masks and slightly insane feline body language; ladies each have a distinctive dress and a plaited fabric wig; every character has a costume as recognisable as a mask.

Cogges is a lovely, cosy, appropriately rural setting for this kind of thing. There are pigs and chickens settling down for the night in their stalls, and lovely old buildings glowing in the summer evening. Burgers, wine, bottled of artisanal ales and ciders and San Pellegrino lemonade were on offer. If you're veggie or gluten-free you'd probably want to bring a picnic, but the basics are covered for the majority. And where else can you make friends with a Shetland pony on the way to the loos?

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