Yesterday I went to see Michael Grandage’s highly original production of Shakespeare’s ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ at the Noel Coward Theatre in the West End with my wife Joanna. It was a matinee performance captioned by STAGETEXT, starring David Walliams and Sheridan Smith.
When we arrived inside, I was pleased to see that we had good seats in the Royal Circle with excellent views of the two caption units, located directly on our eye level on either side of the stage. I looked around from my seat and admired the beautiful theatre, which was absolutely packed with people. There was not a single spare seat in sight, which is unusual for a matinee.
At the start of the First Act, I wasn’t sure if I could follow the plot or the Shakespearian dialogue, written four hundred years ago. I found though, that reading the captions not only helped me to follow what the actors were saying but also to understand the difficult old English. Joanna told me that she found herself reading the dialogue too to help her follow it better.
As the action unfolded, I found it very funny and relatively easy to follow the plot, although it was a bit confusing at first due to the fact that there is a play set within the main play and the story kept switching between the two interconnecting plots. This was a production with a really contemporary twist to it, which was really fun and entertaining to watch.
The set designs were amazing. The play starts off in a repressive urban setting, but once it moves into the woodland fairy scenes, it turns into a magical 1970s flower-power era fantasy with a giant magical moon in the background.
Sheridan Smith is wonderful as Titania, Queen of the Fairies (in addition to doubling as a modern day Hippolyta). With her Toyah Wilcox-style hairdo, pink feathers and voluptuous curves, she seemed like a sexually liberated wild-child, and she looked like she was loving every minute. There was a really funny scene where she was seducing David Walliam’s hapless character Bottom (who had been turned into a donkey) while he was getting stoned on pot in the fairy wonderland. This was pure flower-power magic.
I have never seen Shakespeare brought up-to-date like this before and I thought it was great as it makes it more accessible and fun for younger audiences, who probably think of Shakespeare’s plays as being very serious, fairly inaccessible and difficult to endure, which was definitely not the case with this production.
David Walliams stole the show too, with his hilarious portrayal of the hopeless amateur actor Bottom. He played an incredibly camp and OTT Bottom. Someone remarked that he acted it in such a camp manner that he reminded them of Frankie Howerd, but I thought that his character could have come straight out of ‘Little Britain’, a TV series we all know so well. It was brilliant comedy and I couldn’t help laughing every time he was on the stage. I read an interview with David Walliams in the play’s programme and when asked by the interviewer what kind of research he’d done for his role, he replied “Well I am playing a vain, camp, talentless actor, so I had to do no research whatsoever”. Brilliant, although I’m sure he was being really modest here as his acting was great.
I also laughed a lot during the scenes involving the four lovers, and I really liked the playful fight scenes between them. I thought that Katherine Kingsley, who played the ugly, leggy Helena, was particularly good. She made me laugh when she kept running around the stage in her underwear chasing Sam Swainsbury, who played Lysander, like a demented sex-starved spaniel. It was hilarious.
One of my favourite scenes was near the end when David Walliams’s character Bottom, along with his fellow amateur actors, acted out the play of ‘Pyramus and Thisbe’ in front of Theseus and Hippolyta at the wedding of Lysander and Hermia. Dressed in a Roman centurion’s costume, after believing that his beloved Thisbe (played by a man) was dead, he was supposed to kill himself by stabbing himself with a sword. David Walliams totally hammed up the death scene, taking ages to die and repeatedly coming back to life in a very camp manner. It was pure comedy gold.
At the end of the play after the actors took their bow, David Walliams made a short speech to the audience, appealing for us to donate to a charity, which supports actors and actresses who have fallen on hard times, either through disability, illness or because they have become carers. He said that some of the actors from the play would be in the foyer collecting for the charity afterwards. As he made this short impromptu speech, I noticed that it was being captioned on the screens at the same time, so Alex, the captioner, must have been captioning his words live. I was impressed by this, as it demonstrated how live the captioning is and how flexible the captioner is to include moments like this too.
I loved this production and came out of the theatre with a big smile on my face. Joanna and I both thought that this was one of the best plays that we have seen recently. By giving it a contemporary, hippy-style twist, it made it fun and accessible to new, younger audiences. The captioning was so seamless that I hardly noticed it. It really helped my understanding of the 400-year old Shakespearian dialogue too, as I’m sure it did for others in the audience.