Shakespeare in Shropshire has changed beyond recognition since I arrived in the county. 30 years ago the only professional presentation was for just two summer weeks in Ludlow Castle. The amateurs held sway at Attinghman and Wenlock and we were grateful for them. But touring companies such as Heartbreak and the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, and live relays from London and Stratford, have largely brushed the home-grown efforts aside. So it’s all the more exciting to see the South Shropshire company ‘Here To There’ staging not one, but two, full scale Shakespeare plays at Ludlow Assembly Rooms. ‘Romeo and Juliet’ will follow ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ in rep over the next two weeks…both directed by Carl Walker.
The tight stage bears a stark, silver scaffolding set with a few sticks of furniture and a (rather underused) five-piece band. The spectacle comes from some authentic looking 1950’s teenage costumes (the lovers could have stepped straight out of ‘Grease’) and some witty, grungy, steam punk fairy outfits.
As with most pro-am productions, it’s the young woman who excel. Matters get off to a pretty limp start I’m afraid. Some of the minor male characters seem intent on cutting across the rhythm of the poetry rather than going with the flow. Play the lines straight (and project!) and Shakespeare will do the work for you. Theseus’s threat to kill Hermia, if she doesn’t comply with his wishes, sounded more like sending her to bed with no cocoa.
But once the women get into their stride, the gusto gathers. The girls are great. Lorren Winwood in Hermia’s floral frock does a nice line in bewilderment and raven-haired Helena (played by a real Helena, Helena Devereux) brings an air of Victoria Wood to proceedings. She has a Northern, off-hand, way with her words that raises a smile, and an aptitude for physical comedy that has the audience giggling. There are some lovely touches in the lovers’ scenes. Hermia finds a teddy bear in Demetrius’s rucksack which tickled the ribs and left me wondering what Lysander might have in his vanity case. Their beaus, Liam Alexandru and Alexander McDonald-Smith, rise smartly to the occasion in the quarrels. (Ted seemed a bit 80’s though. Might he have a 50’s ancestor at the back of the toy cupboard?)
The paring of Bexie Archer, as the titillating Titania, and the towering Morgan Rees-Davies, as the scheming Oberon, dominates the show. The underscored, wooing, Welsh fairies are sensual, sinister, seducers. Morgan has a dark, oily voice which slides through the text like Richard Burton reciting Dylan Thomas. His laconic approach is the perfect counterbalance to Bexie’s overt flirtatiousness. It was a warm and muggy night … and it got decidedly muggier whenever they touched.
Puck is also a star turn with her black leather Oxford bags and Mr. Spok ears. Alys Wood presents puck like a Tom-boy pop star from the East End. Her delivery of the Bard’s lines is faultless, and she has a beautiful singing voice.
Andrew Whittle’s Bottom (wearing yellow socks and dark brown sandals) is large and lumpen and, like Tommy Cooper, looks ridiculous just standing there. The timing of his comedy scenes will benefit from a larger audience and it would be good to see a little more fear in his eyes when dominatrix Titania throws herself at him. The Mechanical’s Play is peppered with neat ideas and Thisbe’s death is explosive, to say the least!
There was much to entertain and I hope the good people of South Shropshire will support their adventurous troubadours.