Posts Tagged ‘ Tom Morris ’

Review: A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Bristol Old Vic

Handspring Puppet Company, dir. Tom Morris

How do you represent a charm on stage? How do you conjure a retinue of fairies? How do you show a man transformed into a donkey?

Basil Jones and Adrian Kohler of Handspring Puppet Company are at their best when tackling the impossible. Their best-known venture in the UK is War Horse (how do you create a horse with enough personality to charm an audience?) and now they’ve again joined forces with that production’s director, Tom Morris, with a very different story in their sights.

Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream seems, at first, to be the perfect play for the Handspring treatment. It has illusion at its heart, questions of truth, identity and play-acting. And yet, it is also one of Shakespeare’s most human works: who doesn’t recognise their young self in the four impetuous lovers? Who hasn’t been angry, jealous, dizzy over love? And it’s this examination of a very human emotion that is lost in Handspring’s stagecraft.

Tom Morris’s production at Bristol Old Vic transfers the action to a workshop space. In Vicki Mortimer’s design the stage is surrounded by half-painted planks, tools, hanging dust-sheets. The set has the half-finished coming-into-being appearance that is the trademark of Handspring’s puppets. The cast wear loose jeans, dungarees and checked shirts.

The four human lovers – Hermia played by Akiya Henry, Demetrius played by Kyle Lima, Helena by Naomi Cranston and Lysander by Alex Felton – all have a puppet version of themselves. They each both play the role and operate their puppet self. Sometimes they direct their speech at an actor, sometimes their puppet. The result is distraction and dilution. During the one scene in which the mini-lovers are abandoned completely as the two men fight over Helena, who in turn scraps with Hermia, it feels like an exhilarating release and a pity that actors of this calibre are hampered by cumbersome – and largely unnecessary – puppets.

There are nice moments: when Hermia tells Lysander to ‘lie further off’ the two actors exchange puppets in a neat ornament on the theme of Shakespeare’s text.

Where the puppetry does work, however, is in Morris’s imagining of the fairy world. Puck is a pulsating jumble of floating workshop objects – now a dog, now a giant (although it also reminded me of the computer game character Rayman…). Peaseblossom, Cobweb and Mustardseed are at once endearing and menacing. One leans towards the audience sing-songing ‘kissy-kissy’ before its mouth snaps open to show sharpened fangs and its eyes turn red.

But Bottom is the heart of this production. His transformation is nothing short of astonishing. Miltos Yerolemou gets laughs in all the right places as we’re introduced to the band of mechanicals. But when he returns – as an ass, the audience’s laughter is disbelief, anarchy. Yerolemou is placed in a contraption which turns him almost entirely upside-down, his bare bottom (see what they did there?) in the air, two donkey ears attached to his feet. It is the most imaginative moment in the production by some way – though obviously presents some challenges to the actor as he tries to deliver his lines…

This is the not the dream Dream but there are moments which capture the vertiginous anarchy of Shakespeare’s story. There is a sense that Handspring and Morris are still experimenting and the end result might yet be an astonishingly rude, ravishingly sexy evening of revels. But it’s not there yet.

A Midsummer Night’s Drear runs at Bristol Old Vic until 4 May

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Swallows and Amazons, Bristol Old Vic: review

A sea breeze made the curtains dance, water lapped against the moored sailing boats and cormorants swirled overhead. But we hadn’t even left the auditorium: the wind was created with a piece of canvas and a drum, the water by lighting and the cormorants by some bin bags.

Swallows and Amazons Bristol Old Vic

Tom Morris’ production of Swallows and Amazons is a tribute to the power of the mind. Arthur Ransome’s original story of the six children who spend the summer on Wildcat Island fighting imagined enemies and hiding from make-believe barbarians is itself a testament to children’s imaginative powers. Morris’ production simply carries on the good work.

The set is almost non-existent. Swallow, the children’s boat is simply hinted at by a sail and a couple of planks of wood. Everywhere in this production, the audience are allowed to fill in the gaps: a parrot is created from a feather duster and a pair of secateurs. Robert Innes Hopkins’ design encourages the audience to mimic the imaginative process of the children on stage.

Swallows and Amazons boat and doll

The brilliant freebies from the programme

And what an energetic lot they are. Susan, played by Rosalie Craig, is motherly and fretful – but no less keen on adventure, while John Walker (Stuart McLoughlin) is the lanky, serious-minded older brother. Akiya Henry as Titty is outgoing, bubbly and adventurous: a scene where she leaps into the “sea” elicits a gasp from the audience. For a split second you forget there’s no water and that she’s leaping through the air into the arms of six other actors.*

Stewart Wright steals a few of the scenes as the youngest of the intrepid explorers, Roger. His tantrums are hilarious and his mannerisms exactly mirror those of the toddlers I was sitting next to. Until the second half, I didn’t even clock that he hadn’t bothered to shave his beard off to play the role, so compelling was his characterisation.

The stagecraft of the show cannot be faulted: Tom Morris has created a show which reminds the audience not only of the power of the imagination but of the power of theatre. However, the show is let down by one key element: the songs. The production is in fact a new musical, by Helen Edmundson and Neil Hannon, and with only one or two exceptions, the numbers are eminently forgettable.

Amazon pirates Nancy and Peggy Blackett (played by the brilliant Celia Adams and Amy Booth-Steel) get the best songs by far and sing with childish relish about walking the plank and using guts for garters. They liven the stage up and provide a much-needed balance to the somewhat po-faced Walker children.

Morris has created a brilliant piece of theatre which makes adults into children and children into pirates. Swallows and Amazons is a masterclass in stagecraft. And besides anything else, the programme is brilliant.

*A note: In Or You Could Kiss Me essentially the same stunt was performed with puppets and in my review I said such a stunt was only possible with a puppet. I have been breath-takingly proved wrong.

4/54Comedy Masks

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