“The course of true love never did run smooth.”
Welcome to the Michael Grandage Company’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream by William Shakespeare
Lysander loves Hermia. Hermia loves Lysander. Helena loves Demetrius. Demetrius used to love Helena but now loves Hermia. In the surrounding forest Oberon and Titania, the King and Queen of the Fairies, are having their own battle of love. As the human and magical worlds collide, mischief and chaos erupt, and love at first sight proves a reality for some but makes an ass of others.
Sheridan Smith plays Titania and David Walliams plays Bottom in this new production of one of Shakespeare’s greatest comedies.
‘Here I was looking for a popular play in the season to answer conversations I was having with particular actors. I met David Walliams - who astonished me by bringing a very long list of plays that interested him. One was A Midsummer Night’s Dream. I’d also met Sheridan Smith separately and she’d talked about developing her career as an actor - and out of those conversations came the programming of a great popular classic play. I once directed it in Sheffield in an amazingly short run and didn’t really explore it as well as I’d like to have done. I’m coming at it from a completely different angle this time, but also seeking something that is a bit populist. The casting fulfils a wonderful brief for us which is to get Shakespeare to the kind of people we hope will be really turned on by it.’ Michael Grandage
Theseus, Duke of Athens, is busy with preparations for his wedding to Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons. The excited Athenian people organise parties and entertainment, including a group of local craftsmen turned amateur actors, led by Peter Quince and Nick Bottom, who plan to perform a play in honour of the occasion. But before he can enjoy the festivities, Theseus has to deal with Egeus, an aging nobleman who’s come to his court demanding justice.
Egeus wants his daughter, Hermia, to marry Demetrius, but she refuses, claiming to love his rival Lysander instead. The nobleman insists the Duke instruct Hermia to do her duty as a daughter, or otherwise risk the penalty of ancient Athenian law – the death sentence. A reluctant Theseus gives Hermia until his own wedding day to make a decision, reminding her that she should obey her father in all things.
Desperate, Hermia and Lysander decide to run away the next night to a relative of Lysander’s, many miles from Athens, where they can be safely married. They tell Hermia’s childhood friend, Helena, of their plans. But Helena has her own reasons for not keeping their secret… She’s smitten with Demetrius, to whom she was once engaged until he rejected her for Hermia. If she tells him about Hermia and Lysander’s plans to elope maybe he’ll like her again? Demetrius chases after the fleeing lovers, who disappear into the nearby woods, with Helena in pursuit.
The woods are a strange place, though, ruled over by Oberon, King of the Fairies. He and his Queen, Titania, have recently argued and now Oberon plans to punish her with a spell. He instructs his jester, Puck, to find a magic flower which, when sprinkled on the eyelids of a sleeping man or woman, will make them fall instantly in love with the first thing they see. Unfortunately for Titania that’s unsuspecting Nick Bottom, who - during rehearsals in the woods - has been transformed by a mischievous Puck into a donkey.
Having observed Demetrius’ mistreatment of Helena, Oberon also orders Puck to sprinkle the magic flower on the young man’s eyes, so that he’ll fall back in love with his jilted fiance. All goes to plan until Puck mistakes Lysander - lying asleep in the woods with Hermia - for Demetrius, performs the spell, whereupon Lysander falls instantly in love with Helena, who finds and wakes him anxious that he’s injured or dead.
In trying to correct his mistake, Puck puts a spell on Demetrius - who switches his affections back to Helena - leaving the young woman confused and upset by the advances of the two apparently mocking young noblemen. When Hermia wakes to discover she’s been abandoned, she turns on her old friend Helena, accusing her of betrayal.
Witnessing all this, Oberon tells Puck to make amends or risk his wrath, plus the everlasting unhappiness of the four young lovers and the ruin of Theseus’ wedding day. The wayward fairy has until sunrise to put things right…
Director - Michael Grandage
Set & Costume Designer - Christopher Oram
Lighting Designer - Paule Constable
Composers & Sound Designers - Ben & Max Ringham
Casting Director - Anne McNulty
Movement Director - Ben Wright
Wig & Hair Designer - Richard Mawbey
Production Manager - Paul Handley
Company Stage Manager - Sophie Gabszewicz
Deputy Stage Manager - Lorna Earl
Assistant Stage Manager - Oliver Bagwell Purefoy
Voice & Dialect Coach - Penny Dyer
Music Coach - Nigel Lilley
Props Supervisor - Celia Strainge
Costume Supervisor - Poppy Hall
Head of Wardrobe - Tim Gradwell
Head of Wigs & Make-Up - Gemma Flaherty
Deputy Head of Wardrobe - Charlotte Stidwell
Wardrobe Assistant - Rachael McIntyre
Associate Director - Tara Robinson
Associate Set & Costume Designer - Lee Newby
Associate Lighting Designer - Rob Casey
Associate Sound Designer - Joel Price
William Shakespeare was born in April 1564 in Stratford-upon-Avon and educated at the town’s grammar school. He had been working as playwright and actor in London’s playhouses for some five years by the mid-1590s, when A Midsummer Night’s Dream was written and performed, and had published two narrative poems, The Rape of Lucrece and Venus and Adonis. His Sonnets, privately circulated and dating from 1593 and 1603, were first printed in 1608. A series of romantic comedies were performed between 1597 and 1601: The Merchant of Venice, Much Ado about Nothing, As You Like It and Twelfth Night. These years also saw the two parts of King Henry IV, King Henry V, King John and Julius Caesar, and Hamlet, thought to date from around 1600. Between 1602 and 1606 came a number of plays that were barely comedies but not clearly tragedies: Troilus and Cressida, Measure for Measure and All’s Well That Ends Well. From the same period are the great tragedies: Othello, King Lear, Hamlet, Macbeth and Antony and Cleopatra. In later years he favoured stories with a freer, romantic range, the last of these being The Tempest (1610-11). His last known dramatic works were written in collaboration with John Fletcher: The Two Noble Kinsmen and All Is True (also known as King Henry VIII), performed in 1613. After retiring to Stratford-upon-Avon Shakespeare died there on 23 April 1616.
“Gentles, perchance you wonder at this show…”
By Russell Jackson
A Midsummer Night’s Dream has a generosity of spirit, a lyricism and lightness of touch and a delight in its own devices that have entertained audiences royally for more than 400 years. It gives us a privileged view of parallel realms of existence, and of the great medium it celebrates: the theatre. There are mortal characters with the glamour of a mythological past; supernatural beings with all-too-human problems of their own; and working men who attempt a classical tragedy of love and end up delivering comedy as sublime as that of Laurel and Hardy’s endearing incompetence. Each realm has its own order and decorum, but none fully apprehends the existence of the others. Because these are all contained in that other world of the playhouse, the play achieves ‘the concord of this discord’. Beyond these worlds and that of us, the playgoers, are the elements, the moon, and the cosmos. Disorder leads to a new order or – as Puck puts it in more homely terms – ‘The man shall have his mare again, and all shall be well.’
The play was first published in 1600, but has been thought to date from 1594-96, around the time of Romeo and Juliet and Richard II. It has often been suggested that it was written for an aristocratic wedding at a great country house, but there is no conclusive evidence for this. Shakespeare’s Dream evokes a magical time of year and a ‘magic hour’ or two in the freedom of the woods. Theseus, who has won the heart of the Amazonian queen he recently conquered in battle, makes the all-important point in the play’s first lines, connecting the passage of time, the Moon and the urgency of desire:
“…four happy days bring in
Another moon – but O, methinks, how slow
This old moon wanes! She lingers my desires”
After this, references to the moon recur. Theseus feels obliged to enforce the ‘harsh Athenian law’ that would condemn Hermia to death or to life as a nun (‘chanting faint hymns to the cold fruitless moon’) if she does not consent to marry Demetrius, the suitor favoured by her father. Lysander proposes escape from Athens, and Hermia suggests a more romantic view of moonlight, better suited to lovers’ needs:
“Tomorrow night, when Phoebe doth behold
Her silver visage in the wat’ry glass,
Decking with liquid pearl the bladed grass
(A time that lovers’ flights doth still conceal)
Through Athens’ gates have we devis’d to steal.”
Helena, still carrying a torch for Demetrius, despite his wooing of her friend, reflects that
“Things base and vile, holding no quantity,
Love can transpose to form and dignity.
Love looks not with the eyes, but with the mind,
And therefore is wing’d Cupid painted blind.”
But there are other forces at work that no-one has reckoned with so far…
Athenian workmen are preparing a play that they hope will be performed as part of the wedding festivities. Pyramus and Thisbe, to avoid the opposition of their parents to their union, will plan to meet by moonlight, will fatally miss each other and – separately – commit suicide. The anxious discussion of the means of achieving illusion puts the deceptive magic of theatre at the centre of the comedy’s agenda. Rehearsing in the woods seems the best way of avoiding their planned effects (‘devices’) being known. All the mortals who head for the forest are about to encounter a regime whose transformative powers and its own ‘devices’ go beyond even love or the theatre.
Transforming things ‘base and vile’ to ‘form and dignity’ and (more interestingly) vice versa are the business of the woodland folk, and in their realm the potential consequences are more serious. There is a power struggle, and Oberon, angered by Titania’s refusal to give him her ‘Indian boy’, puts her under a spell that will make her fall in love with the first creature she sees when she wakes from her sleep. The wild card is Puck, a mischief-maker who provides the amusement for the fairy king that the workmen’s play will offer to Theseus and Hippolyta. Puck turns Bottom into an ass, sexually potent but hardly appropriate as bedfellow for the fairy queen.
Titania invokes another attribute of the moon when she wakes and immediately falls in love with Bottom and commands her fairies to ‘lead him to my bower.’
“The moon, methinks, looks with a watery eye,
And when she weeps, weeps every little flower,
Lamenting some enforcèd chastity.
Tie up my love’s tongue; bring him silently.”
Bottom is about to enjoy (and, poor ass, forget) a sexual experience more intense than the kind that the mortal lovers are careful to avoid. He will emerge from his dream – the only way he can make sense of his night in the forest – with a vague though pleasing sense of what has occurred. Titania’s lyrical force is both touchingly direct and sophisticated:
“So doth the woodbine the sweet honeysuckle
Gently entwist; the female ivy so
Enrings the barky fingers of the elm.
O, how I love thee! How I dote on thee!”
Not only is she a spirit of another rate, she knows her plant life.
In the final act the discrete worlds of the play frame each other in turn, with Theseus announcing that he ‘never may believe / these antique fables, nor these fairy toys’ and Hippolyta replying that ‘all the story of the night told over…grows to something of great constancy.’ The play of Pyramus and Thisbe, ‘very tragical mirth,’ transforms a legendary tragedy into a comedy that, in its own way – not understood by the actors or their on-stage audience – is a commentary on the follies of the night; and the fairies’ arrival to bless the ‘bride-bed’ and the house, with Puck brushing the dust behind the door, brings human domestic reality and supernatural powers together. The last moments turn towards the audience, and one of the ‘shadows’ that have been both actors and rulers of the fairy world speak directly to us – without the mortals knowing it. We have a secret we share with the fairies.
Russell Jackson is Allardyce Nicoll Professor of Drama at the University of Birmingham. His most recent publications include Shakespeare Films in the Making (2007) and Theatres on Film: How the Cinema Imagines the Stage (2013).
Theseus, Duke of Athens, and Oberon, King of the Fairies
Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons, betrothed to Theseus, and Titania, Queen of the Fairies
Philostrate, Theseus’ Master of the Revels
and Puck/Robin Goodfellow, Oberon’s jester and lieutenant
Attending on Theseus and Hippolyta
and also on Oberon and Titania
Daughter to Egeus, in love with Lysander
In love with Demetrius
In love with Hermia
In love with Hermia
Peaseblossom, a fairy in Titania’s service, and Tom Snoutt, a tinker playing Wall in the Interlude
Cobweb, a fairy in Titania’s service, and Robin Starveling, a tailor playing Moonshine in the Interlude
Moth, a fairy in Titania’s service, and Peter Quince, a carpenter playing Prologue in the Interlude
Mustardseed, a fairy in Titania’s service and Francis Flute, a carpenter playing Thisbe in the Interlude
Nick Botton, a weaver playing Pyramus in the Interlude
Snug, a joiner playing Lion in the Interlude
Associate Director Tara Robinson provides a week-by-week summary of rehearsals for A Midsummer Night’s Dream
Our first week was a varied, creative and thrilling one. Ideas for how the production will look, sound and feel have been buzzing around the room and the practical application for those thoughts is emerging in a sketch form.
Our first day brought our huge company together for a ‘Meet and Greet'. A cast of seventeen made up only a fraction of the team who will bring this piece to the Noel Coward Theatre. Most of the creatives have associates - assistants who can share the load and step into the role if required later on - and there’s also a team of worker bees behind the scenes producing, promoting and managing the production.
Our director, Michael Grandage, and designer, Christopher Oram, introduced the design and inspirations for our approach to this play written over four hundred years ago. The discussion of how to make magic and fairies feel relatable to our experiences in 2013 was tackled and continued to be interrogated throughout the week.
Many companies begin the rehearsal process with a readthrough of the play on the first day, with all the team assembled. Michael doesn’t, preferring to avoid the nervous presentation of what might be to come, getting straight into working on the play privately with the actors instead.
We began at the beginning. Our working version of the script has scenes determined by the Creative Team, which combine some of Shakespeare’s scenes, and all those involved in the first scene began by reading it briefly before talking it through, line-by-line, for basic meaning. To help us in this we had Text Consultant, Russell Jackson, on hand. All interpretations of the playing of the story were left open and as soon as meaning was established, the actors jumped on their feet and sketched out a rough shape for where the scene might take place on the stage. This pattern was repeated chronologically for all the scenes and was playful and energised - a good start to the journey!
Friday and Saturday saw the arrival of our Movement Director, Ben Wright, who brought in new qualities for the Fairies and taught the first of our pieces of choreography.
Our second week of rehearsals saw us build on last week’s shape and placed a special emphasis on movement and physicality, in the knowledge that we will lose our choreographer at the end of this week. I was assigned the role of Dance Captain due to Ben Wright’s impending absence and my perpetual presence! I had a joyful time learning snippets of movement, a line dance and rhythmic enchantments with the rest of the company.
Our ensemble has begun to work at ease with each other, rehearsal room banter is in full swing and the actors are becoming more comfortable speaking the language and inhabiting the space. With this has come more in-depth questioning about characterisation, which Michael has assured us we will delve into next week in more focused scene work.
The ‘fight scene’ is looking particularly exciting, with lots of moves and frantic action for our Deputy Stage Manager, Lorna Earl, to scribble down in her cue book - only for it to be changed by something even better the next time we return to it. The actors are bringing creative ideas, both pre-prepared and spontaneous, and the room feels open for that.
Performances have really started growing this week. One-on-one sessions with Michael have given the principals a chance to talk through their individual relationships, motivations, journeys and any areas of concern.
Our company feels in some way split in two, between the Fairies and the Lovers, who rarely rehearse at the same time or even have a sense of what the other is doing. What’s been interesting for those of us in the room for both worlds is how the two storylines offer different challenges, and how the actors are responding to them.
We’ve had some anxious questions arise about making the very poetic language employed by Titania, Oberon and Puck accessible for a modern audience, who may not grasp fifty per cent of the images or vocabulary. The process has been one of empowering these actors to ‘have their cake and eat it’ – to celebrate the verse and rhythm of Shakespeare’s language while resisting the temptation to assume that in doing so we are making it ‘less modern'. It’s a difficult balance and has seen some quite typical week three nerves surface.
One of our principals came down with a nasty sore throat and needed three days of rest, which meant we felt a little off-kilter, but it also allowed us to focus on some of the smaller details. I began rehearsing with the understudies, all of whom are members of the company, sketching through the blocking to give everyone a rough idea of the shape of the roles they are to cover. We will add more detail during the next couple of weeks.
With our principal returned, the whole company seemed to jump at their characterisation with new fervour this week, which was really exciting for Michael and I. It’s reminded me to trust the process of allowing actors to delve over time, and in doing so find their own voice and direction. Areas which I had worried about last week suddenly had clarity, without any interference, as is to be expected when working with such high-calibre actors.
At this stage, as the actors are becoming comfortable with their decisions, Michael has encouraged them to question certain choices, especially approaches to language - particular leanings on specific words or ironic delivery - and undo them, to see how that might change a dynamic or keep the original choice fresh. With all of these challenges, the opportunity to return to the original choice has not been taken away, but the request is to try and inhabit a new one - to find the previous one anew when we move towards previews after next week’s runs.
It’s also meant a drastic reduction in gags within the Mechanicals’ scenes. The scenes themselves contain gags, but naturally our company have coloured them, adding in extra ‘business’, which has now been stripped back to maintain a truthfulness to the story and energy of the scenes. They may return, but it has been an interesting process, and I suspect a challenging one for some of the actors, who both enjoyed generating their comic material and playing with it. The overall clarity of the scenes has been improved, though, and I’m interested to see whether Michael will still encourage playfulness outside the text as we move into week five, when we begin running the play.
Our understudy rehearsals have delved into the characters with a little more detail, and the perpetual fine line between making the role the understudy’s own and remaining true to the choices made by the company has been discussed daily.
Our final week before we get to the theatre.
This week has been about runs, runs and more runs. We had our first stagger-through on bank holiday Monday - no rest for the artist - and the company’s nerves were palpable but needn’t have been. The rest of the week saw us adding in costumes and wigs, working out quick changes for Mechanicals/Fairies, Titania/Hippolyta and Oberon/Theseus, and allowed everyone to gain a sense of how this beast moves as an overall show. What I’ve realised is how wonderfully varied the play is, with its different plot lines, and Michael has emphasised the need for a tightness between scenes to keep it constantly fresh and unpredictable.
We were in a good place by Friday evening but the company were tired. One member of the ensemble is rehearsing with us all day then performing in the evening, so Michael cancelled our Saturday run and the understudies met for a run-through instead. We’re hugely lucky to have had so much time together on the understudy roles. It’s usually an element that gets pushed to the side and can cause panic, but we’re in a good place and should anyone have to go on, they’ll be ready.
We go into the theatre for ‘Tech Week’ on Tuesday.
While the crew were busy preparing all the technical elements of the show at the theatre on Monday, we had one last runthrough in the rehearsal space. It was exciting and it’s clear we’re ready to start wedding our work there with the stage and the design.
Tuesday saw the first of our ‘tech’ sessions and we started working through the play at a good speed, adding lights and sound. This period often offers new challenges. Some blocking needs to be changed because it’s harder to achieve, or doesn’t read, and the cast realise how much more they need to project to really be heard. Michael’s meticulous attention to detail in the rehearsal room, ensuring no actor is ever really speaking upstage, but always turned towards the audience, paid off.
Towards the end of the week we had two dress rehearsals, which were technically very encouraging, but the cohesion of the performance has not quite been found yet. Perhaps we need an audience for that?
Our first preview took place on the Saturday at the end of tech week. The night before, we’d invited a small audience to help us bridge the gap between having no one in the auditorium to having at least one hundred people in the stalls. It was thrilling for the cast to hear laughs, to gauge energies and for us to see the actors start to take ownership of the space.
Saturday’s performance was a little shaky, though. Our cast were nervous and although our audience couldn’t tell, we could feel the rhythm of the beast was a little off. We spent the next few performances fine-tuning that and getting the show to launch.
Throughout this preview week, we’ve had rehearsals and notes in the afternoon prior to the performance. It’s been an opportunity to work off the back of what we receive in front of an audience. It’s a hugely important period and one that many theatres aren’t able to afford – a full week of previews before opening. We’re lucky and as we gear up to opening night, we’re finally ready.
Education Associate Dominic Francis provides an insight into the cast and Creative Team’s rehearsal process for A Midsummer Night’s Dream
Having assembled the cast and Creative Team of A Midsummer Night’s Dream for the customary ‘Meet and Greet’ on the morning of the first day of rehearsals, director Michael Grandage outlines his working process for that day and the coming weeks.
There’ll be no read through, as Michael thinks they’re an ‘unlevel playing field’, and he tends to avoid table work, preferring to get up earlier and quicker. His aim is to have the entire play ‘on its feet’ by the end of the first week. ‘For those of you who haven’t done this before, hold onto yourself,’ he advises the cast. ‘It can feel a little unsettling.’ Michael reassures them that, ‘There’s no such thing as a stupid question – ever, ever, ever'. He rehearses scenes with just those actors in them in the room. This means precise schedules and call-times.
Present throughout the first week will be Text Consultant Russell Jackson, who has worked with Michael many times before. At the end of week one, Movement Director Ben Wright will be introduced. From week three, the understudies will also be in the room, observing rehearsals. And throughout this period elements of costume and music will be added and experimented with.
Michael briefly discusses the play and the intention behind the production. ‘The beginning of my relationship with Shakespeare, as a director, started at the Sheffield Theatres,’ he explains. Michael staged a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream there, but it had a short run and he didn’t feel he’d fully investigated it. He thinks the play offers a ‘heightened sensory experience', commenting of Shakespeare, ‘No writer worth his salt writes a drama about an ordinary day'.
Michael talks about the connection necessary between the cast and the play, referring to an ‘invisible thread'. ‘It exists between each actor, tight and alive and never dropped. There’s also an invisible thread between you and the audience.’ He clarifies his point: ‘The “it” is the narrative of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which we can never depart from.’ Michael invites the cast to embrace this process. ‘Let today be the start of freeing your imagination.’
He then turns his attention to the world of the play, which is set in Athens. ‘Why Athens? What does it have to offer?’ asks Michael. ‘A sense of society – two hundred thousand citizens.’ Referring to the design, he poses the questions: ‘Where are we? And when?’ Michael places the production somewhere between the mid-twentieth century and the present day - essentially ‘now’ - before handing over to designer Christopher Oram.
Christopher champions A Midsummer Night’s Dream: ‘Along with The Tempest, it’s the most thrilling play in the English narrative. Every time I go back to the text I see a different layer.’ Unveiling the scale-model of the set, he explains that, ‘The court references a 1940s’, ‘50s’ look, which was broken down in the ‘60s'. Theseus’ dwelling – stately and grand - presents a ‘classically-proportioned room', which is in stark contrast to the woods.
Christopher describes the world outdoors as an ‘abstraction of a forest with a bombed-out look'. It’s a real playground for the cast: ‘A space you can run around in and feel the wind through your hair.’ The inspiration for this was taken from the ‘Burning Man’ culture, an alternative community living in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert.
To conclude the Meet and Greet, Michael asks the Composers and Sound Designers, Ben and Max Ringham, to play the ‘opening percussive cue'. A strikingly contemporary piece of music plays – part rave, part trance - that has the whole cast nodding their heads, before morphing into the Carpenters’ Touch Me When We’re Dancing. Michael refers to the latter as the ‘Lovers’ Song', turning to Sheridan Smith and Padraic Delaney - playing Hippolyta/Titania and Theseus/Oberon – and commenting, ‘This is a story about you two being brought together'. Listening to the song, he smiles - ‘When I was at school that was called a “smooch”!’
With a much smaller group of people, just those actors in Scene One - plus Russell Jackson, Associate Director Tara Robinson and Deputy Stage Manager Lorna Earl - Michael starts work on the opening scene of the play. He begins by explaining that the script they’re using is a version prepared by him and long-term collaborator David Hunt. Russell, an academic and practitioner specialising in Shakespeare, will act as a guide to the text, referring to various editions of the play.
‘If we have to remember one thing about this play,’ observes Michael, ‘we do absolutely go through a confusing array of emotions.’ A Midsummer Night’s Dream is referred to as a comedy, but Michael questions this in relation to Scene One: ‘It’s actually suggested someone in this scene be sentenced to death.’ (Hermia by her father, Egeus.) ‘It’s about getting the balance right – between tragedy and comedy.’
Sitting on chairs in front of Michael and the team, the cast read through the scene once, asking questions about story and character and clarifying the meaning of certain words and phrases – for example, ‘nuptial hour’ referring to Theseus and Hippolyta’s wedding day. Occasionally, Michael will modify an actor’s pronunciation of a particular word, for the purpose of the rhythm of the verse, consulting Russell where necessary.
Referring to Theseus’ line, ‘four happy days bring in / Another moon', Michael explains that the action of the play is meant to last a few days, but following this scene all reference to its time-scheme is dropped. He also notes Hippolyta’s response, ‘Four nights will quickly dream away the time’ – ‘The very first mention of “dream” in our production.’
Focusing on this couple, Michael suggests that Theseus and Hippolyta have equivalent status to a king and queen: ‘There’s no reference elsewhere in the play to anyone higher.’ The challenge, he thinks, is to ground them in reality. ‘We need to find out who they are for you and us to relate to. They’re not Wills and Kate.’
Michael asks how long they’ve been engaged? And more significantly, whether they love each other? The couple’s back-story is then discussed. A war has recently been fought between the Athenians and the Amazonians, which the Athenians - led by Theseus - won. As victor, he claims Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons, as his bride. Their marriage is a direct result of the conflict. Despite this, reflects Michael, ‘On the surface of the three opening speeches there’s harmony in this world'.
The function and position of the other characters is also clarified. For example, Philostrate is Theseus’ Master of the Revels, a high-status courtier.
Michael then turns his attention to the four young Lovers: Hermia and Lysander and Helena and Demetrius. He doesn’t think the frequent interpretation of them being old friends particularly helpful, preferring to examine the intricacy of their complex relationships instead. He suggests it’s common knowledge within Theseus’ court that Demetrius switched his affections from Helena to Hermia. A question Michael constantly asks of himself and the actors is, ‘Where’s the evidence in the text to support that view?’
This brings him to the fundamental issue at the centre of the opening scene, which prompts the ensuing action of the play: ‘Why is Egeus so implacable about Hermia marrying Demetrius? Shakespeare’s written a really entrenched character. The ownership factor – father owning daughter – has to be a more interesting aspect to play than simply anger.’ Michael encourages Leo Wringer, playing Egeus, to find all the different colours in the character and scene. Speculating on the old man’s back-story, Michael notes that there’s a missing wife. He suggests Egeus has a sense of things coming to an end – the end of the family line.
Michael also highlights Hermia’s outspoken attitude towards her father - answering back, etc. - which would have been considered shocking to Shakespeare’s audience. He explores the other characters’ reactions to events in the scene, commenting that while they all know the ancient Athenian laws to which Egeus refers, no one believes he’d actually exercise them.
The end of the scene focuses on Hermia and Helena’s friendship. In her closing speech, we see the start of Helena’s ‘cattiness’ towards her former playmate. Michael counsels Katherine Kingsley, playing Helena, to find the right pitch: ‘We need to save up the maliciousness.’ He thinks Hermia a very recognisable character, commenting wryly, ‘We’ve all got them – friends we wouldn’t leave alone with our partners!’
Following this discussion, the actors get up on their feet to start ‘sketching’ the scene. ‘I don’t know whether we’ll start with music,’ says Michael. ‘We might save that up for later.’
At this early stage, he takes the opportunity to establish some basic principles with regard to blocking: ‘I want to avoid playing too much on the mid-stage because the woodland scenes are set there.’ Michael encourages the cast to ‘naturally go off into your diagonals'. Occasionally he’ll give more specific directions to actors: ‘Keep your distance across the other side of the stage – use the width.’ And later: ‘Use that little encounter you have with her there as an opportunity to bring her downstage and play that on the fore, with him up on the diagonal.’
At the end of the session, Michael’s pleased: ‘All of this sort of works. Just mark that down as a general sketch of the scene.’
The actors swap over and work begins in the same way on Scene Two. Michael reflects on the developing story of the play: ‘At the end of ten pages we know that two narratives are joining up.’ The Mechanicals have entered the world of the Court.
He wonders about the origins of the craftsmen’s acting troupe: ‘How were they formed? Make it up, make it clear.’ Michael suggests the Mechanicals may be ‘Shakespeare’s dig at amateur dramatics', although he’s cautious about making too strong a judgement regarding the characters. ‘I think it’s a mistake to bring on a group who are a load of village idiots. It’s not particularly helpful for us.’ He asks whether their names reveal anything about them? (For example - Francis Flute, a bellow’s mender.) ‘I’d love the production to offer up six very different character studies,’ says Michael. He also questions the significance of the doubling-up – Mechanicals playing Fairies – and whether there’s any meaning in that? He suggests the Fairies might be more appropriately named ‘Forest Dwellers'.
David Walliams, playing Nick Bottom, and Michael have been exploring the idea that his character and fellow Mechanical Peter Quince are actually a couple. ‘Big ideas often fall short,’ comments Michael, ‘but this one works all the way through. It brings a very specific dynamic right into the centre of this group.’ He thinks the relationship between the two should be at the centre of this scene.
Putting it on its feet, Michael asks, ‘Where are you?’ An undefined meeting place is rejected in favour of Theseus’ court, Theseus having recently departed. ‘They don’t know if their play’s going to be selected,’ suggests Michael, ‘and they’ve come to recce the venue.’ He thinks this helpful – ‘It informs the scene.’ They wonder whether Philostrate, as Master of the Revels, should lead the acting troupe on to show them the space? In reading the text, Michael takes nothing for granted. Considering Quince’s registering of the group, he asks actor Richard Dempsey, ‘Is it possible that you’re calling them because you don’t know them yet?’
Regarding the scene as a whole, Michael compares Shakespeare to a screenwriter – ‘He’s great at pre-credit sequences.’ He thinks this sequence particularly effective, economically introducing the Mechanicals. ‘It’s a good scene to keep a bit of our powder dry. By the end of it, the audience need a sense of who you are.’ Michael encourages the actors to maintain the momentum throughout: ‘Keep the motor of this scene going but still making sure we’re keeping the rhythm.’
At the end of the session he asks, ‘What do we need to look at when we next come to this scene?’ With the actors, Michael’s constantly questioning the text: ‘We must see what we need to discover there.’ He wants to explore all the details – ‘Find the grace notes.’
Work begins on Scene Three next - the introduction to the world of the Fairies in the woods. Michael notes that it’s the first scene set at night, following two daytime ones. ‘The biggest thing that an audience should take from this scene is that all is not well. The natural order has been overturned, is on its head.’ He counsels the actors to remain in control of the storytelling: ‘Never let us get ahead of you in Scene Three. At the end of it we should be quite breathless – everything’s in chaos.’
He considers the opening exchange between Puck and another Fairy, in particular their relationship – ‘What’s the connection between them?’ Craig Vye, playing the First Fairy, suggests he ‘scouts ahead’ for Puck. This leads to a discussion about tribes and Michael refers to eco-warriors and ‘disparate groups who share one common energy'. He also describes the forest dwellers as ‘quite feral’ and comments that a potential problem of their costumes – hippyish in look – is that ‘it all becomes too chilled out'.
The tone of the scene shifts after Oberon’s argument with Titania, followed by Helena and Lysander’s equally charged exchange. ‘By the end,’ reflects Michael, ‘it’s a very different scene to the expectation set up by the entrance of Puck and the Fairy.’
By the end of the first week some elements of the set have been introduced into the rehearsal room, including a mock-up of the ramp at the back of the stage.
Movement Director Ben Wright is leading a session with the cast today. Michael asks the actors to show Ben Scene Four, which starts with the Fairies singing to Titania. He clarifies the exits at the end of the previous scene and, while watching the entrances at the beginning of the next, notices a trend developing among the cast - ‘We’re getting good at coming on and finding a centre.’ Michael encourages them to avoid this tendency. After they run the scene, he asks: ‘What’s the story? They’re lulling her to sleep. But also, in our “Burning Man” world, there’s something a little druggy going on.’ He refers to a ‘sugar-cube moment’ in the scene, characters reaching out to one another’s faces. ‘We’re excited by where we’re going, into a slightly spaced-out world.’
Having seen a runthrough, Ben says he’s going to give the actors some ‘building blocks’, which he describes as a ‘foundation we can move in and out of'. He creates a ‘basic phrase’ and then walks the cast through it several times, encouraging them to remain supple: ‘Soft. All of the joints have got air in them so they’re not locked. Even your feet are moving beneath you. There’s no disconnect between body and feet.’ Later, Ben says of a move, ‘It’s a head roll, not a body roll. A ricochet effect like falling into a hole'. The actors’ health and safety remains a key priority – ‘The quality of the movement and you will be safe.’ Tara, the Associate Director, joins in, learning the choreography along with the cast in order to help them remember it later.
Watching this, Michael makes suggestions and asks requests: ‘Having seen that, the language of that, is there a version where…?’ And he and Ben will discuss an alternative, experimenting with the actors. It’s a very collaborative process with everyone in the rehearsal room contributing ideas and supporting one another. Composer Ben Ringham adds a couple of bars to the score to allow more time for the movement. The lighting is also discussed, syncing it with the blocking to help focus a specific moment. The Fairies gather round Titania during the song, in what’s described as a ‘Wicker Man circle'. Michael wants the group to remain still – ‘Static’s better so she’s the focus.’
Next, Ben devises a way to lift Titania and carry the sleeping Queen to her bed, on a raised platform accessed by a spiral staircase. Michael clarifies the height of the platform to enable Ben to calculate whether the cast can actually lift her that high. Michael’s keen to ensure the lifting and carrying come out of the preceding action – ‘I think I might want a slightly more organic way into that.’
Having watched the choreography of the song, Michael reflects on the storytelling: ‘I’ve got one observation – it’s a lullaby to lull her to sleep. The only thing that seems slightly contradictory to me is, “Come not near our fairy queen…” Keep the movement but change the attitude behind it.’ Learning the choreography has, to some extent, been at the expense of remembering the song, the actors dropping lines and then catching up on them later. Ben suggests they re-visit the routine next week, and then every week thereafter.
Following a short break, there’s a shift in the mood of the music with a more contemporary score that references both Lonnie Donegan and the Carpenters. ‘We’re going to add all you Fairies to Karen Carpenter,’ smiles Michael. He suggests Ben start in his usual way: ‘I would go for your general language first.’ Ben encourages the actors to opt for small movements – ‘Be understated with the steps.’
Michael wants the Fairies to be part of the ‘de-assing’ of Bottom, removing his teeth, tail and hooves. ‘Think backing upstage, masking a scene change,’ Michael calls out to the cast, ‘but keep it fluid for me. If you’re in the audience watching you don’t want to see any of that.’ He turns to Ben – ‘What’s the language when they retreat?’ Responding to this new routine, Michael asks Ben (Ringham) to add another minute to the score.
While focused on the movement, Michael reminds the actors to remember their characterisation: ‘Just hold onto who you are as well, even when you’re doing this choreography. Otherwise it’ll be harder to go back and re-incorporate it.’
Today the cast are working on Scene Eight, a short scene in which Nick Bottom – no longer a donkey – is reunited with the other Mechanicals. ‘Let’s see where we got to at the end of last rehearsal,’ says Michael. ‘We’ve only done it once so I’ll stop you if you go off-piste.’
He begins by clarifying the facts: ‘Where are you?’ Scene Eight appears to start mid-conversation, Michael suggesting the cast, ‘Think of it as being discovered already on, cloth out'. The scene presents a number of challenges, leading him to appeal to the actors: ‘Can you help this scene a little bit? What’s interesting is that Shakespeare doesn’t help us here - he leaves us to decide. Are they upset about not being able to stage the play? Or about the loss of Bottom?’ Michael considers this. ‘We need to imbue it with the loss of a friend as well as the play.'
Reading ahead, he queries the text, in particular an exchange between Peter Quince and Francis Flute: ‘I do maintain that these lines have been badly attributed by the compositor. They don’t make sense.’ He re-attributes the dialogue, explaining, ‘We’re publishing this script so we need to get all these changes in'.
They run the scene, following which Michael says, ‘Let’s just look at that first part again before David comes on'. There’s a chair on stage, which Richard Dempsey as Quince has been using. ‘I’m not a hundred per cent buying the chair,’ says Michael. ‘Just use it as an anchor.’ He recommends Peter stand behind it or lean against it but avoid actually sitting on it.
Craig Vye, playing Snug the Joiner, enters and delivers his line, ‘Masters, the Duke is coming from the temple…’ Michael responds, ‘Don’t make it an energised entrance’, suggesting it’s more reflective, as Snug thinks his way through what he’s just witnessed and its implications. ‘You’ve computed it. You’ve taken it in, internalised it and now it’s happened,’ observes Michael, asking Craig to keep the line alive and active instead. ‘It’s happening.’ He looks again at the start of the line: ‘ “Masters…” Now, one thing there - you could have good news.’
Michael listens keenly to the cast’s delivery of the text, ensuring its clarity. ‘Do you know what you’re saying there?’ he asks one actor, seeking to clarify the meaning of a line. ‘The bit that’s not clear…’ And together they’ll unlock it, Michael supporting in filling in the gaps – ‘We’re missing a few mini-words, which we need to put in to help it out.’
Next, he considers Bottom’s reunion with his fellow amateur actors, especially Quince, and his imparting of the news that their play has been chosen to be performed at Theseus’ wedding. ‘It’s hard,’ reflects Michael. ‘The responsibility of it shouldn’t all fall on David.’ He focuses on Bottom’s revelation, ‘Our play is preferred'. ‘There’s excitement, but now you actually have to do it. It’s a difficult way to end the scene. Although having to now do the play adds an energy, a kick to the scene – they’re back on track. What helps us, the audience, is that we know that for Nick Bottom the play is everything.’
Michael asks them to run the scene again, cuing them with his usual, ‘Here we go…’ Afterwards, reflecting on the moment when Bottom is revealed, he wonders whether ‘we’ve hijacked our own scene by having such a big entrance’? He’s more convinced by its conclusion – ‘An exit absolutely activated by the energy of going. Improvise all the way, going off chattering.’ Michael returns to the central relationship of Bottom and Quince: ‘Maybe we should afford ourselves a slight reunion there? Just to button this scene.’ There’s a suggestion that Richard take David’s hand. While it works, Michael maintains his usual vigilance on tone and emphasis – ‘It’s not too much?’
After a short break for the cast, Ben Wright rejoins rehearsals. He starts by teaching the Mechanicals a line dance to be incorporated later in the action. The music comes from an intro to a Lonnie Donegan song. ‘Can I make some little requests?’ asks Michael, looking on. ‘I like it that they don’t go too far downstage.’ He prefers to have the group in one line and for them to exit dancing stage-right. Michael makes a note for designer Christopher Oram, to clarify that the onstage cassette-player isn’t anachronistic and dates from the correct period - the 1970s.
The focus then shifts to the moment in Scene Five where Bottom is transformed into a donkey, the Fairies dancing around him. During this change, David’s costume is augmented with a pair of long, drooping ears and protruding false teeth. In his movement, Ben suggests David ‘lead with the teeth', demonstrating this. Every detail of the transformation is considered – the ‘grotesque braying’ of a donkey, the backwards kick of its hind leg. Michael highlights the need to decide which words in Bottom’s speech trigger his braying and ‘hee-hawing'.
Christopher and Poppy Hall, the Costume Supervisor, join the rehearsal to observe the developing movement and see what’s required of Bottom’s costume. As they haven’t started making it yet, they can adapt it accordingly. Watching the scene, Michael encourages the cast, ‘That’s nice, it’s a good sequence'.
Ben’s keen to include the Fairies as much as possible in the transformation and suggests ‘giving more value’ to the ritualistic elements of the scene – for example, the Fairies placing a noose over Bottom’s head then leading him around the stage. (This leads to a separate discussion about the prop noose in terms of health and safety.) The Fairies also echo Bottom’s ‘hee-hawing'. ‘It’s exciting to be part of the transformation,’ comments Michael. ‘He’s making you all a donkey!’ The actors are encouraged to find all the nuances within the scene. ‘There’s a little more menace to it,’ says Michael, ‘and something slightly sexual in the change that comes over Bottom.’
Following this, Ben works with Michael and the cast to revise and rehearse smaller moments of movement, in particular the transition between scenes. Ben strives for accuracy within all the routines, to aid the actors in committing sequences to memory – ‘I feel like we should really nail the ending there.’
They work on the song again. ‘It’s a stronger start when everyone sings together,’ observes Ben. He calls out notes as the cast run the sequence: ‘Keep the sensitivity through the feet as well… A bit more commitment, even if you mess it up.’ Afterwards, Michael comments: ‘I think it can be richer this sound. When you know your moves you can fill it more.’ Ben adds to this - ‘Explore the range of the physical and then, once it’s in the muscle-memory, come back into the vocal.’
The day’s work starts with Michael and Company Stage Manager Sophie Gabszewicz discussing the cast’s call-times on Monday, while DSM Lorna Earl repairs the mark-up on the rehearsal room floor.
The actors begin to arrive, ready to rehearse part of Scene Three – an exchange between Oberon and Puck, played by Padraic Delaney and Gavin Fowler, during which the magic flower is introduced. Michael calls everyone to order: ‘Thank you… Let’s go back on all of that. Let’s look at the overview, of the intention of this stuff.’
They run the scene, with Michael making observations and asking questions. He counsels Padraic against making his performance too big early on: ‘Think of it like a piece of music – the composer reaches a crescendo, but then there’s a quieter passage where we can reconfigure and gather ourselves.’ He describes the earlier part of Oberon and Puck’s exchange as a ‘firework scene', but this moment is more contemplative. ‘This is the beginning of the plan,’ says Padraic. Michael agrees, encouraging the actors to keep engaging with one another – ‘Keep that tension there, Gavin. You’ve got to keep a giant question mark over the whole scene.’
He works with Padraic and Gavin to find all the colours within the scene. ‘What you can introduce there, if I may say, is a little bit of mischief,’ Michael suggests at one point. All the while, he maintains the focus on delivery and engagement, giving the actors various notes: ‘Can you try taking out even the cigarette paper from between those lines... Keep it alive, keep talking to him… You’re still going off on one for yourself - I want you to enjoy it with him.’
Michael then turns his attention to the Lovers in the woods, in particular their exchanges in scenes three, four and six. ‘Some things we should look at before they bed in too far,’ he says. Working with Katherine Kingsley and Stefano Braschi, who play Helena and Demetrius, Michael focuses on their first scene together, with Helena in pursuit of her former fiance. He wants to ‘lessen the intensity', asking the actors to ‘tell us the story’ instead. ‘What is your attitude towards Helena’s “modesty", her virginity?’ Michael asks Stefano as Demetrius. ‘It’s not clear.’ They discuss it before running the scene again. ‘That’s a good choice,’ says Michael afterwards. ‘Can you heighten that? Appealing to her, not being too aggressive. Up that choice.’
Katherine’s concerned the exchange became too fraught - ‘Does it need more stillness?’ Michael understands her point: ‘It got too “Ibsen” - too tragic in the wrong way. The key to all of it is don’t lose her charm.’ He helps both actors ground themselves in the fundamentals: ‘The “uber-motive” of this scene is for Helena to catch Demetrius and for Demetrius to escape. Make sure no move or thought is bigger than the need to communicate with one another.’
Michael consults his script and notes. ‘There was a bit of air that got in between some lines. We just need to tighten it - join up the lines and thoughts.’ He also considers tone and emphasis, suggesting to one actor, ‘There’s a line you could give a little more colour to'. Returning to Katherine’s earlier point about stillness, Michael comments, ‘Have the courage to stay there on, “We cannot fight for love, as men may do” – let us come to you'. He works with the cast to continually explore the possible alternatives – ‘Is there a version where…?’ – and they’ll consider another option. The welfare of the actors is uppermost in Michael’s mind and he asks if the blocking of Helena and Demetrius’ tussle within the scene feels safe – ‘Or do I need to bring someone in?’
He finishes work on Scene Three by looking at Oberon and Puck’s final exchange, maintaining his focus on the text: ‘You’re being ever so slightly over emphatic with your delivery there – balance it out a bit more.’ This includes considering the punctuation within one of Oberon’s lines and there follows a brief discussion about changing it to clarify the meaning – from: ‘Hast thou the flower there? Welcome, wanderer.’ To: ‘Hast thou the flower there, welcome wanderer?’ The second version is chosen for the time being. ‘Hold onto that,’ says Michael.
Staying with the Lovers in the woods, he moves onto Scene Four and an exchange between Hermia and Lysander, played by Susannah Fielding and Sam Swainsbury. They run the scene once, following which Michael observes to Sam, ‘What’s consistent is you’re always pulling away from “Fair love” in “Fair love, you faint with wand’ring in the wood". He makes the general point that an actor inserting an ‘oh’ or ‘ah’ into Shakespeare tells him that they’re not comfortable with a line – it’s an actor’s trick to try and get into it. ‘You don’t need them,’ says Michael, encouraging the cast to trust the verse.
There’s a lot of humour in the room, the team supporting one another through their banter. The scene’s run again, Sam joking beforehand, ‘I’ll mess it up now!’ Michael reassures him and the other actors: ‘You’re allowed to. That’s why we’re in here.’
The work on Scene Four concludes with Puck mistakenly casting a spell on Lysander, who then falls in love with Helena. ‘I’d love to see slightly more clearly when you decide to do it,’ Michael says to Gavin, referring to the moment when Puck drops the potion in Lysander’s eyes. He encourages him to maintain the vitality of the text before his exit: ‘Don’t end with a full-stop – keep it alive.’
Michael switches his focus to Demetrius, Helena and Lysander, wanting to preserve the energy of the scene toward its climax. ‘It just needs something a little bit more…’ he comments to Stefano, before concluding, ‘I guess you just need to play the exit.' Turning to Katherine, he considers Helena’s closing speech: ‘Make sure the front end is balanced and the rest of it should look after itself.’
Work then begins on Scene Six, a long scene featuring all four Lovers, plus Oberon and Puck. It opens with an exchange between the Fairy King and his mischievous jester, whose speech recounts Titania’s falling in love with a donkey: ‘So it came to pass, / Titania wak’d, and straightway loved an ass.’ Michael comments on this last line - ‘In musical terms, it’s “the button". He likes Gavin’s interpretation. ‘Hold onto it. It’s a brilliant choice that.’
This is followed by Hermia’s entrance, pursued and harassed by Demetrius. ‘We need to join you in high dudgeon,’ says Michael. They run the scene, following which he comments, ‘I don’t know why but it’s not quite working for me'. Michael, Susannah and Stefano discuss elements within the scene, such as the near-embrace between Hermia and Demetrius as she attempts to woo information from him. ‘It needs to be something that fills the moment more convincingly,’ suggests Michael. He focuses on particular moments, reminding the actors of their motives: ‘I’m not sure what the attitude is there. Join those thoughts up, be specific.’ They run the scene again and Michael thinks it better, commenting to Stefano, ‘It might have been a little slower in its rhythm, but it didn’t let in any air and you kept it alive'.
The focus of the scene shifts back to Oberon and Puck as they look on. ‘Just go a little lighter there,’ Michael advises Padraic in his exchange with Gavin, ‘keep it with him.’ He reflects on Gavin’s delivery of, ‘Shall we their fond pageant see? / Lord, what fools these mortals be!’ – ‘Our choice to see them and then respond with the line is holding us up a bit. Can you have the thought on the line?’ In terms of the storytelling, Michael considers the intention of every piece of text: ‘Now, who’s that line for? (Oberon: Stand aside. The noise they make / Will cause Demetrius to awake.) All the people out there in the dark?’ Of Oberon and Puck’s exchange, he concludes – ‘The whole thing should be one complete charm.’
Katherine and Sam run the next part of the scene, between Helena and Lysander, Michael congratulating them afterwards – ‘I completely got the story.’ It’s decided that the waking Demetrius will pull focus with a long ‘Ohhh…’ on his opening line, ‘O Helen, goddess, nymph, perfect, divine!’ Michael counsels Stefano to exercise his judgement here: ‘Don’t overcomplicate it, otherwise you won’t let us in on the joke.’
Having worked on all the exchanges within this long scene, the cast attempt to join them together by running the whole thing. Michael reflects on it afterwards, particularly the tussles and fights: ‘The physicality was good. Was there anything that went wrong? Was there anything dangerous?’ He then focuses on the latter part of the scene, ‘unpicking’ it.
Michael reminds the actors of the purpose of today’s work, to reconsider the ‘intention’ of everything so far. ‘Be wary of choices made in week one. Don’t let them get in the way of your journey. As we get better, week one choices can hinder our new speed of thought.’ He warns the cast against this, particularly in certain instances: ‘Sometimes the choice is governing the line.’
Michael encourages the actors to make new discoveries, however small – ‘A tiny colour, a grace note.’ He invites them to join him in continuing to explore the text: ‘I’m for a week of abandoning choices so that perhaps we can find them again.’ This is a process, he says, that should continue into the run – ‘Taking out a choice for three performances to freshen it up, keep it alive.’ This is a general note to the whole cast: ‘Somewhere on stage you’ve got to keep it fresh. You have to keep listening to one another and talking to each other.’
Nearing the end of the session, Michael asks the actors whether they’d like to run the scene again, given its length and physical demands. How would they best like to use the time? They decide to work on the choreography of the various struggles, tussles and fights.
He focuses on another exchange between Oberon and Puck, returning to his earlier note about delivery and engagement, reminding the cast to talk to one another. ‘I was fine with that until you started giving it to the air again – I want you to give it to him,’ explains Michael to one actor. ‘Just tell him. Bring it down, don’t declaim. You’re telling him something you’ve already worked out. Take him through it, keep it simple.’ Another attempt finds this quality. ‘You trusted yourself to just say it,’ Michael responds, ‘and in doing so you picked out the key words naturally.’
For the first part of this afternoon’s rehearsal, Michael is working one-to-one with Gavin Fowler. They’re looking at Puck’s speech and song in Scene Four, discussing various choices. ‘I think a lot of it works,’ says Michael. He’s encouraging Gavin to explore new ideas – ‘Don’t censor yourself before you’ve tried it.’
During the speech, Puck inhales from a magic flower. ‘Sniffing the flower takes you out of the rhythm,’ Michael observes. ‘Do it on the line - it’s slightly more active.’ Gavin agrees: ‘Keep the choice without breaking the line.’ Michael reminds him that, ‘Drugs don’t just make us soporific, they also heighten our awareness'. This widens Gavin’s options for playing with the speech.
Michael maintains the focus on clear storytelling: ‘ “Through the forest have I gone…” – you’ll have to tell us freshly there.’ Concluding the session, he reminds Gavin to ‘make sure all the choices join up the dots of that narrative'. He’s pleased with his progress: ‘You’re alright with that speech. You’re in a good place.’
Next, they re-cap the song from the beginning of Scene Four. ‘Let’s start to get used to the music coming out of Scene Three into Four,’ says Michael, as more elements of the production are incorporated into rehearsals. Ben Ringham plays the score, after which Michael makes a request for birdsong to be added to the soundscape.
Michael listens to the cast sing the song, commenting afterwards: ‘I don’t hear “nigh” - we’ve just got to get cleaner on the diction there.’ He focuses on the movement in relation to the music - ‘Jump on the same beat… Don’t lose the rhythm on the second chorus.’ Something in the choreography troubles Michael, when the actors sink to the ground back-to-back: ‘What have you eased back on in the “tripping” version? It’s the only move now that sits outside the narrative. I’m looking for something more organic in terms of where it comes from.’ He looks at specific moments – ‘Is there a version where you can get closer into Titania’s feet so she seems less abandoned?’ In Ben Wright’s absence, Michael and the cast modify some of the movement, filming it to Skype to Ben later for his thoughts and comments.
Discussing the mood and feel at the end of the scene, Michael describes it as post-carnival – ‘Heading home, not the start of a new day.’ Before moving on, he checks everyone’s noted and understood the changes made in today’s session: ‘Fairies, are we all clear with the new moves? Let’s tick that.’
Michael and the cast then re-visit the exchanges between the Lovers in Scene Four. With Ben, he discusses adding ‘generic forest sounds’ to the soundscape for Hermia and Lysander’s entrance – ‘Something slightly sinister.’ Watching the short scene between the two, in which Lysander confesses they’re lost, Michael says to Sam Swainsbury, ‘The only thing that shouldn’t be folded into that is tiredness'. He warns both actors against dropping the energy.
Next comes the exchange between Helena and Lysander, with Puck’s magic beginning to take effect. Michael encourages Katherine Kingsley to maintain the reality of the scene and her character’s emotions: ‘Play something as absolutely truthful there as possible.’ Looking at her exit, he comments, ‘The only thing that doesn’t work is why Lysander doesn’t follow Helena'.
Hermia’s closing speech brings the scene to an end. She wakes from a nightmare to discover she’s all alone, abandoned by Lysander. ‘If you didn’t make that choice, of a faux swoon, what would you do?’ Michael asks Susannah Fielding. He suggests she try a real swoon to see what it adds – ‘Explore it as an option.’ Reflecting on the tone at the end of the scene, Michael says, ‘The play gets to quite a frightening place here – this moment takes it to another place for a nanosecond'.
He’s pleased with the work they’ve done today: ‘Well done, you Lovers. I think that’s the best you’ve ever done it. Katherine, that completely landed there – “But who is here?".' Bringing his notes and the session to a close, Michael says, ‘That was my stuff’, before asking the actors, ‘Was there anything from any of you?’ At the end, Lorna approaches each of the actors in turn, highlighting any forgotten lines, working with them to ensure they get the words exactly right.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream by William Shakespeare (Michael Grandage Company, Ltd., 2013)
The text of MGC’s 2013 production of the play at the Noel Coward Theatre.
Many other editions, with introductions and commentaries, are available.
The following books were in the rehearsal room for A Midsummer Night’s Dream:
Burning Man – Art in the Desert – A. Leo Nash (Abrams)
Desert to Dream – A Dozen Years of Burning Man Photography – Barbara Traub (Immedium)
The Woods – David Vance (Pohlmann Press)
Portrait of a Generation – The Love Parade Family Book – Alfred Steffen (Taschen)
Deborah Turbeville (Congreve)
Deborah Turbeville – Past Imperfect 1978-1997 (Steidl)
Deborah Turbeville – The Fashion Pictures (Rizzoli)
All of a Sudden – Jack Pierson