Preview: A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Adapting Shakespeare is a tried, tested and tired practice – as writers, directors and actors attempt to draw out contemporary relevance to the 400-year-old plays while remaining faithful to the Bard. Matthew Badham talks to Sean Holmes, a director who claims to have done so through live music and a food fight

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A Midsummer Night’s Dream is one of Shakespeare’s most accessible plays. It’s a comedy featuring magic, music and star-crossed lovers. But there’s a problem. The piece, like most of Shakespeare’s work, has been staged countless times. How then do you make it feel fresh and new for an audience?

“That is potentially difficult because it feels like every idea that anyone’s ever had has been done already,” says Sean Holmes, the director of a new production at the Royal Exchange in Manchester.

His secret weapon in this regard has been Filter Theatre, a company known for its iconoclastic approach to making work.

“With Filter, I knew that whatever we came up with together would be somewhat unexpected,” Holmes explains.

It’s not the first time that the director has worked with the company. In fact, it’s not the first time it’s done A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The roots of this current production lie in a performance he and Filter put together for the Latitude Festival two years ago.

“We made it in ten days and, when we first performed it, we’d not run it in its entirety before. It was a deliberate policy of going: ‘Let’s create the piece in a period of time that is impossible to make it in.’ So we had to very quickly make strong decisions about how we were going to stage it and that can either backfire or work well. Anyway, the spirit and basic language of this current iteration came out of those ten days, in which we created a chaotic, messy, energetic and surprising piece.”

The latest incarnation of the production premiered earlier this year at the Lyric Hammersmith, where Holmes is artistic director. Reviews described it variously as “joyously unorthodox”, “anarchic” and “marvellously irreverent”.

“There’s usually a food fight towards the end of the play,” the director reveals, “when the lovers all end up losing their temper with each other. This can spill out into the audience and get them involved too. So, there’s always that element with the production that we’re never quite sure how it’s going to go.”

But this messy physicality is just one aspect of Filter’s aesthetic. They also use live music to great effect, with musicians on-stage with the actors.

“There’s a moment in the production where Puck sets up a microphone and a musician behind him leans into it, and makes a small ‘shum’ noise. Then he captures that with a programme in a computer and treats it so that suddenly this ‘shum’ is all over the theatre like a thousand fairies flying around. Then Puck ‘catches’ the fairy in his hand. He tries to talk to it but can’t hear it, so he puts the fairy on the microphone and suddenly it’s amplified. Meanwhile, in the background, you can see an actress with a microphone, which is again treated, speaking in the fairy’s voice.”

The director is keen to stress that despite a less than conventional approach, Filter still shows due respect to Shakespeare’s words.

“Many of the actors have done quite a lot of Shakespeare, so in the middle of all this mayhem and destruction, when they do have to say the words they’re also good at that. When Jonny Broadbent playing Oberon says ‘I know a bank where the wild thyme blows’, there’s this still, simple moment that I think works really well.”

Ultimately, Holmes believes that he and Filter made the right call when they decided to create their new interpretation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. “The fact that it is so iconic is actually what made it a good fit for us. We had to look at ways of doing things like representing the fairies in a new and original way. Our challenge, really, was to find out how cheeky and subversive we could be while still remaining true to the spirit of Shakespeare’s play.”

A Midsummer Night’s Dream is at Manchester’s Royal Exchange until 4 August

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