Review: Insane Root Theatre’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream – Eastville Park Swimming Pool

For The Reviews Hub

A delightful dip in the Shakespearean pool

If you follow the path through Eastville Park, the course of true love will take you to a derelict, open-air Victorian pool finally waking after a long sleep and filling not with water, but with wonder and delight as the setting for Insane Root’s latest production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

From vaults to graveyards, crypts to caves, Insane Root specialise in seeing the potential of unexpected spaces to elucidate Shakespearean and other classic texts: placing their 2017 adaptation of The Tempest in St John on the Wall’s Crypt perfectly captured the elegiac longing of the ageing Prospero, and as the star-cross’d lovers in their open-air production of Romeo and Juliet fell to their tragic fates, so did the cloak of night fall over the players and audience in this very pool. It’s a few years since Insane Root last laid their scene at Eastville Park, and while the pool doesn’t cast a spell as potent or perfectly plotted for Midsummer as it did Romeo and Juliet, it is – with a little sprinkle of Puck’s fairy dust and Edmund McKay’s playful lighting – an opportune Athenian woodland for spirited fairies, lost lovers, and crafty thespians alike.

The foliage around the pool is a natural ‘palace wood’, the drained pool floor a perfect stage, and the steps around the edge a fitting, if solid, place to watch the action unfold. Dressed in the earthy palette of Katy Hoste’s designs, the talented cast of nine actors open with a song from associate Ellie Showering. Their distinctive choral work, which also scores all of Insane Root’s previous adaptations with lyrics skilfully drawn from the text itself, lulls us with soft lilts into the fantasy world of the play and fixes us there with Dan Pollard’s echoing sound design.

The different worlds and interwoven plots are part of the difficulty in adapting this deceptively straight-forward play. The fighting lovers, vengeful fairies, and disastrous group of artisans-turned-actors are grounds for farce, and Hannah Drake’s playful direction does find all the lightness and laughter, but there’s also darkness to explore. Theseus ‘woo’d’ the warrior Hippolyta with his ‘sword’ and founded their nuptials on violence, and that violence is echoed in Egeus’s fury that his ‘fair’ daughter Hermia – a fierce Lily Donovan – will not accept her fate as Demetrius’s wife. The production faintly traces this, as Norma Butikofer’s Hippolyta is strong-willed and weaponed, and, under Kev McCurdy’s fight direction, outwits Wela Mbusi’s stately Theseus with a swipe of her wooden lance, while gender-swapping Esmée Cook’s proud Lysander adds a frightening prejudice to Egeus’s scorn. Dualling the parts of Theseus/Oberon and Hippolyta/Titania also plays into the deeper layers of the play, with the fairies’ tricks and deceptions a fantastical foil to the suppressed tension of Theseus and Hippolyta.

Although, as Theseus declares in the opening scene, ‘the pale companion is not for our pomp’, and it’s in the fun and frivolity that this production truly awakes. There’s a wonderfully entertaining turn from Euan Shanahan as Puck, playing the sprite with all the swagger of a drunk festivalgoer and introduced with a swig of lager and a loud eructation, and Lizzie Crarer is effervescent as the desperately earnest and devoted Helena, delivering every speech with astounding lucidity. And every scene featuring the Mechanicals, captained by Gareth Warren’s luckless Quince who can scarcely do up the fastenings on his natty cardigan let alone lead his cast of tinkers, tailors, and supposed players, is a delight, particularly the farcical play-within-a-play where Alexander Mushore’s Flute delivers his final lines as the prancing Thisbe so delicately that if this were Juliet saying ‘adieu’ you wouldn’t find a dry eye in the pool. And lastly, though definitely not least, Byron Mondahl’s Bottom exudes all the delusions of grandeur – and occasionally, the vocal pitch – of an operatic soprano, delighting in Titania and the fairies’ adoration without a lick of wit.

So, though the full depths of the play don’t always surface, this playful production, with Insane Root’s unparalleled eye for space and appreciation of Shakespeare’s text, is still a delightful dip in the Shakespearean pool.

Date: 6pm – Saturday 9th July 2022 (24th June-20th August)
Location: Eastville Park Swimming Pool
For: The Reviews Hub
Cast: Norma Butikofer, Esmée Cook, Lizzie Crarer, Lily Donovan, Wela Mbusi, Byron Mondahl, Alexander Mushore, Euan Shanahan & Gareth Warren
Picture: Jack Offord
Link: Insane Root Theatre’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Favourite: Normal People

A feat of authenticity and nuance in portraying adolescence

For a story so unaffected and so frank in its narrative style, the adaptation of Normal People is as devastating as it is frustrating, a feat of authenticity and nuance in portraying adolescence that’s so true-to-life that you feel every glance, every faltering ‘I love you’, and every note of Yazoo’s ‘Only You’ as it plays over the final scene of episode three.

Following two Irish students as they fall in and out of love, the writers, directors, and actors focus on depicting the experience of sex, isolation, grieving, and longing with a weight and fragility that’s not afforded to stories of adolescence very often, and all with a soundtrack that echoes every scene to devastating effect. To echo Yazoo again, ‘it’s like a story of love’, and like all love stories, it’ll leave you feeling a little fragile, and yet so grateful for the love you gave to it.

Originally for Culturefly’s Yearly Favourites Feature 2020

Review: Hamnet – Maggie O’Farrell

Like grieving, this novel lingers, delicate and devastating

A tale of devastating grief with Shakespearean influence, O’Farrell’s novel is an elegy to the fragility of life, and follows the everyday, everlasting, ever-lingering effect of loss on a playwright and his wife living in Stratford-upon-Avon in the late 1500s.

Though this is evidently Shakespeare, as he also experienced the death of his young child early in life, O’Farrell’s Will isn’t the illustrious playwright, but the young Latin tutor falling in love, the longed-for father following his work to London, adrift from his wife and children in Stratford, and the artist so desperate to author a different life for his lost child that this act of preservation proves too poetic, too disaffecting, for his grieving wife, Agnes.

As, after all, it’s not the lofty poetry of Will’s life in London that’s the focus of the novel, but the practicalities of death and the private duty that Agnes devotes her life to in Stratford. Laced with detail and with all of O’Farrell’s elegance, Hamnet, like grieving, lingers, delicate and devastating, long after the final act.

Originally for Culturefly’s Yearly Favourites Feature

Review: The Five – Hallie Rubenhold

Polly. Annie. Elizabeth. Kate. Mary Jane.

These are the five canonical victims of Jack the Ripper, a Victorian figure whose famously violent legacy still plagues the streets of the Whitechapel district of East London, with walks, fictions, and periodicals dedicated to offences so vicious and folkloric that they and their faceless culprit are the focus of deathly fascination.

The five – Polly Nichols, Annie Chapman, Elizabeth Stride, Kate Eddowes, and Mary Jane Kelly – were left with a far less illustrious legacy. A footnote to their antagonist, canon-fodder for the anecdote, they were scapegoats, accepted as prostitutes without proof, disfigured, disgraced, displayed as photographs of defaced corpses, and, largely, forgotten from their own stories in favour of the surgical details of their deaths.

Forgotten, that is, until The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper: Continue reading “Review: The Five – Hallie Rubenhold”

Review: Matilda the Musical UK Tour

Original review for the Reviews Hub

Matilda the Musical.jpeg

Mischief, magic, and as much charm as the original tale

‘Just because I find myself in this story, it doesn’t mean that everything is written for me’: ah, the wisdom of children – the whimsical wonder and childlike delight that children can’t wait to outgrow and adults wish for once again is the foundation of Roald Dahl’s classic children’s literature. With all of Dahl’s wisdom and a little childlike wonder, Matilda the Musical is Denis Kelly’s delightful adaptation of Dahl’s Matilda, the wisest little worm of all.

A precocious child prodigy flipping through Dickens and Dostoevsky at five years old, Matilda is desperate to grow up and escape from a family – coiffed and vociferous in fantastic performances from Sebastien Torkia and Rebecca Thornhill – that prefer the sedative effects of television to the fanciful dance of their daughter’s fairy tales. Escaping to the autocratic tutelage of Crunchem Hall, Matilda is taught the toughest class of all: even teachers, like Carly Thoms’s ‘pathetic’ and empathetic Miss Honey, can’t escape from ‘fighting the creatures that you have fight each night’, even if they’re all grown up, and particularly if that creature is the terrifying Trunchball. Continue reading “Review: Matilda the Musical UK Tour”