So this is the easy bit. Easy to experience, that is, if you are in Stratford-upon-Avon, are lucky enough to have an invitation, and are prepared to be awake and alert at 2am. It’s most certainly not easy to create, but it is, in its way, also easy to understand and to appreciate. We know, give or take, what theatre is, and sitting in a lofty rehearsal space as a group of wonderful actors play out the central scenes of A Midsummer Night’s Dream just inches from us is most definitely theatre. Thrilling theatre. Revelatory theatre. Played upon a stage for some fifty of us. What’s not to like? But this is Midsummer Night’s Dreaming, a Royal Shakespeare Company collaboration with Google, and there is a good deal more that is not nearly so easy.
Let’s leave the Google stuff (or most of it) until the next post later today – although there is an introduction here and an essential discussion of the aims of the project from Google’s Tom Uglow here; also you can find a Google+ site here and complementary streams here. More of all that anon. For the moment let’s savour the privilege of being in the Ashcroft Room above the RSC’s Swan Theatre at around 2.30am on Sunday morning. (Incidentally, you should know that I have a part-time role as Media Associate at the RSC and am producing the live-to-cinema broadcast of Richard II in November, so I’m not exactly a neutral observer.)
We are here to see A Midsummer Night’s Dream Act II Scene 1 through to Act IV Scene 1, all of which takes place in the woods on Midsummer’s Night (which this year was, in fact, two nights ago). Act I in Athens was staged on Friday evening in this space, and the remainder of the drama will be played in ‘real-time’ later today, Sunday, at 4pm for Act IV Scene 2 and at 11.30pm for Act 5. Weather permitting, we’ll be in the open air for those scenes.
RSC Artistic Director Gregory Doran, who has also directed this performance, welcomes us. He encourages us to use our mobile phones (on silent, please) to post photos and responses as we watch (just as long as we use the hashtag #Dream40). This is apparently the RSC’s fortieth Dream, and there can have been few as strange. Whatever else you think of the whole shebang, the company deserves kudos for taking this on and exploring the current outer limits of digital Shakespeare.
And then the mischief and the magic begins… the company has had just a week to rehearse, although a number of them have played the Dream before, including some for Greg in an earlier production. In an empty space surrounded by two rows of chairs and a good deal of tech, we get an imperious Oberon from Peter de Jersey, Alexandra Gilbreath’s thrillingly sexy Titania, and a truculent Puck courtesy of Mark Hadfield. And the lovers (including Anneika Rose, Mark Quartley and Simon Manyonda) are brilliantly bemused and bewildered, with Lucy Briggs-Owen nailing Helena as I’ve never seen before.
Costumes are minimal, props restricted to a flower and a bower bed for the Queen of the Fairies. Parts of the drama are pointed by Paul Englishby’s keyboard and bells. But for the most part, this is the words, words, words, making sense and making us laugh and cry. We appreciate anew how central is the moon to the play, and we catch the references to the dawn and to the dawn chorus, which springs up outside as if cued by the DSM.
We have been urged to use our cameras and connections to post as we go along – and some of us do, although it feels, well, odd. I need a little time to process what, if anything, I got from Tweeting some photos, and from watching the Twitter stream go through. But the play’s the thing, as Joe Dixon’s Bottom bosses the rehearsals by the mechanicals and moonwalks as Titania says, ‘What angel wakes me from my flowery bed?’
After ninety minutes or so, as Theseus and Hippolyta (De Jersey and Gilbreath doubling) arrive for the hunt, it is almost light outside, and all is – as gloriously as ever – reconciled and redeemed. Bottom, untranslated now, rushes off to his date with his mates, and we show our appreciation. We have indeed had a most rare vision, which is made all the more special by sparkling wine and OJ on the balcony outside. A marvellous moon can be glimpsed through the clouds and opposite, over the Avon, the sun is beginning to rise. So here’s the company at the close of proceedings – and, yes, that’s the moon you can see just above Peter de Jersey’s head.