I think it was W. C. Fields who once said "Never work with children or animals". Well, at least the cast of 'A Midsummer Night's Dream' - this year's children's production at the Open Air Theatre - are beginning to understand what he meant. But more of that anon.
Each year at the Open Air Theatre, one of the productions is targeted, quite sensibly and fairly, at children. In the past few years, I've seen some excellent productions, especially the last two which were directed by children's theatre specialist, David Wood.
Since there's been a change of artistic director this year at the theatre, it's no surprise that there's also been a change of strategy in terms of the children's play. So this year the ever popular 'A Midsummer Night's Dream ', a regular production at the theatre, has been chosen to cater for the young audiences.
The play is billed as suitable for 7 to 11 year olds, but I noticed that quite a few of the children were younger than 7 and some were certainly older than 11. But the age range quoted by the theatre seems about right, even if some streetwise 11 year olds might find the play a little young for them.
The play starts with an interactive prologue - the idea being to introduce the main characters and describe what they're about to get up to in the play. It's a first-rate approach because it not only provides a synopsis but starts the whole thing off with a lot of fun too. And once we get into the play itself the dialogue is easier to follow, and none of the audience seemed lost – in fact, quite the opposite, they seemed enthralled. Quite a bit of the text has been judiciously pruned – the marriage between the Duke and Hippolyta has gone, for example. But what remains is enough to be faithful to Shakespeare's work, without diluting it into unrecognisable drivel.
The same main backdrop (or 'installation') for the first two adult plays in the season is used again here, no doubt because it's almost a fully-fledged building in its own right and looks like it would be difficult to move quickly. But it fits well because it's got the favour of a dilapidated building about it, the kind of half-ruin you might find in a forest, for example. As for the rest of the set, there's one huge box which serves as a kind of dressing room or hiding place for the cast, and looks like an enormous toy box. Around it are scattered large wooden cubes with letters on them – the kind you might see in any young child's bedroom. In effect, it's a kind of 'toy town' set, which is reflected in the action and the costumes. Demetrius and Lysander, for example, look like toy soldiers, complete with rosy red cheeks and accentuated actions that give them almost a clockwork precision. And to change scenes from Athens to the enchanted forest, a toy-like set of wagons with trees in them is brought on.
Dale Superville gives us an excellent Bottom complete with false teeth, hooves and an itch that can't quite be scratched enough. He's also a good choice as the jovial master of ceremonies, leading the way in the prologue and introducing the rest of the cast.
As we waited for the show to start, I noticed that some of the actors - already in character - were mooching around and swooping on unsuspecting younger members of the audience. It transpired that certain characters in the play – the Duke, Moonshine, the wall, the 'chink' and a squadron of fairies were to be played by members of the audience. And this is where we return to W. C. Fields and his famous quote. What the cast are now learning is that when you invite children to participate in a show, you're going to be upstaged. And that was definitely the case here, when a diminutive young man who was playing Moonshine got rather carried away with his part by swinging his lantern for all he was worth and eventually getting it entangled in the bunting behind him. Unravelled, the lantern once more got the same enthusiastic treatment, and became entangled again. It was, of course, the show stealer. But the cast found it just as amusing as the rest of the audience, managing to maintain their professionalism in spite of being, I suspect, on the brink of corpsing.
This version of 'A Midsummer Night's Dream' is lots of fun and a perfect introduction to Shakespeare, and indeed to theatre in general. And if you happen to have a child who already has feet itching to get on stage – this might just be their big break!