No time to dream;Reviews;Set Plays
Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream in 90 minutes without an interval- to fit into school timetables - was the challenge that director Graham Watts had to meet for Shakespeare in Education's tour to schools, this year aimed at 12 to 15-year-olds.
"Clearly some element had to go," says Watts, "and it seemed sensible to cut out much of the 'fairy-land' material and focus on those aspects which would have some relevance to the students' lives and would challenge them to look at the play afresh."
So Watts's focus is on the defiance of parental authority, running away from home and finding the world a strange and frightening place, teenage passions and quarrels - growing up, in other words.
However, fairyland is not altogether jettisoned. Oberon, Titania and Puck are all there, working their mischief, though in Neil Irish's costume designs, including little harlequin masks for their eyes, they are clearly prankish humans rather than anything other-worldly, and they inhabit an abstract world of shiny metal stage, screens and step-ladders, Watts says.
"We have to remember who the production is for; it's for young teenagers, not adults. Adult preconceptions are based on memories of previous productions. These young people have no preconceptions; to them the kind of world we've created is nothing like as shocking as it would be to an older audience, and the lack of 'grace', in the adult sense, makes it more familiar and accessible to them."
But Watts does give clues to other worlds contained in the play,with a series of, sometimes beautiful, sometimes mysterious, images on two video screens on either side of the stage: heavy, rusty chains accompany the scene of Hermia's defiance of her father; as we enter the wood, rich clusters of flowers glow on the screens, and Titania and Oberon's presence is complemented by great swirling, clouded, skyscapes.
In contrast, during the mechanicals' rehearsals we see the narrow alleys from which these "hard-handed men, that work in Athens here", are sprung.
hese symbolic clues should engender endless classroom discussion, while Watts's other use of modern media will surely delight his young audiences: the mechanicals' play becomes a film, in a zany, Pythonesque style, projected on to a gauze curtain hung hurriedly across the stage. It is often hilarious and enables the cast of young actors (all recent graduates of Birmingham Theatre School) to retain their roles of the three aristocratic couples watching the entertainment.
Teachers may have to adjust their expectations of this Dream and may feel that the production lacks some subtleties, but I suspect that the teenage audiences will find it an unexpectedly clear and lively realisation of a complex text.
Watts says: "You can only begin to look for subtleties in the play once you have engaged the students' interest. That's our prime aim - to involve these young people in the play so that they want to explore it further."
touring to schools in the Midlands until July 4. Teachers' pack, workshop details and bookings from Shakespeare in Education 0121 440 1525