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

Review: Insane Root’s Romeo and Juliet

Original review: The Reviews Hub

Insane Root's Romeo and Juliet

Joyous and tragic and tear-jerking and gorgeous

Shakespeare, ‘star-cross’d lovers’, ancestral strife, and… an open-air swimming pool? Insane Root Theatre’s ‘fair Verona’ is Eastville Park Swimming Pool, an empty, open-air pool just east of the city, and it’s the surprisingly perfect place to lay our scene. Rich as it is in imagery, romance, and rivalry, Insane Root’s Romeo and Juliet is joyous and tragic and tear-jerking and gorgeous, with its greatness cleverly tucked away at the edge of a green and covered by the gates of Verona.

An old amphitheatric Victorian lido, the pool is drained and derelict, thick with undergrowth, and growing ever darker in the dusk: these are organic grounds for a tragedy, but the true ground for tragedy in Romeo and Juliet is the jarring generic change that comes with Mercutio as a casualty in Act III and transforms a coarse, oftentimes juvenile comedy into the tragic ‘two hour traffic’ augured in the prologue. With canonic characterisation as a tragedy, it’s often challenging to pitch the comedic tone, but as Insane Root tease out the originality of classic plays by performing them in original, often unexpected, places, the pool is perfectly pitched to accommodate tradition and creation, comedy and tragedy, and to grow them together organically. Continue reading “Review: Insane Root’s Romeo and Juliet”

5 Favourites: 2017 Theatre Favs

War Horse UK Tour at the Bristol Hippodrome

War Horse may be a show about horses, but it has the most heart, the most heroism, and the most humanity of any show you’ll ever see. The tale of Joey the horse and his boy, Albert, torn apart by war and wrestling to return home together, is told in a visceral, evocative, and immensely moving way with hope and humanity at its heart.

Joey is a horse half-thoroughbred, half-draft, and it’s homogenous to the ingenious design and direction of the production. Half of the experience is pure, refined, performance that feels real, in the acting, the affect, the inhuman affliction of warfare, and the other half is creativity and craft working in front of us to make thrilling, theatrical magic.  The horses are played by three puppeteers – a head, a heart, and a hind – that stamp, snort, and stand up on their hind legs like horses, but also think and feel like humans. This is war in all its brutality, but also its overwhelming bravery: the mechanisms and machines and mercilessness are all laid bare, but so are the men and their mounts.

At its heart, War Horse is a stellar example of ensemble storytelling for a supremely talented company, where hand-puppeteered horses and humans working in harmony prove there’s hope for all humanity to imagine a world that works together.

Read the full review here!

The Royal Ballet’s Live Cinema Season

From the charm of Frederick Ashton‘s choreography, with ‘The Dream’ truly dreamy, ‘Symphonic Variations’ simply visionary, and ‘Marguerite and Armand’ emotionally arresting, to Woolf Works, where Wayne McGregor does with movement as Virginia Woolf did with words, to Christopher Wheeldon’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, an eclectic spectacle of technicolor creation, to the musical suites and magical sweets of The Nutcracker.

The depth and diversity of dance on offer is a delight, and the performances are complemented by insightful interval videos and the opportunity to be privy to the most intimate moments of a dancer’s performance, from rehearsal to retirement, as for Zenaida Yanowsky after Marguerite and Armand. After her final curtain, it was beautifully poignant to see her partners from the Royal Ballet’s roster past and present, including Carlos Acosta, Jonathan Cope, and Nehemiah Kish, as well as her partner in the piece, Roberto Bolle, present her with bouquet after bouquet of flowers. A truly fitting finale to both a wonderful career and an evening of charming works.

Wardrobe Ensemble’s Education, Education, Education

Twenty years ago, in 1997, it was a time of Take That, Tamagotchis and British teachers celebrating in the staff room after Tony Blair and the Labour party were elected with the mantra ‘education, education, education’. Wardrobe Ensemble’s eponymous play unpacks the politics of this cultural moment with wit, warmth, and winning charm, exploring the optimism of possibility, and, in turn, the realism that cuts through the 90s nostalgia with political poignancy.

Set in a well-meaning but not-quite-comprehensive comprehensive secondary school in the immediate aftermath of the election, the Ensemble create wholly believable characters, perform a script that’s so slick and so quick that it easily elicits laughs from its wit alone, and bop along to a nostalgia-fest of 90s bangers.

In Education, Education, Education, Wardrobe Ensemble capture the politics of yesteryear with the same anxieties of our present, managing to be riotously funny and quietly reflective; as head teacher Hugh says, in light of the election the teachers must remain politically impartial in all their classes, but, ‘we did win Eurovision, so talk about that as much as you wish’. The show ends blasting the election anthem ‘Things Can Only Get Better’, and there’s hope, as for the Tamagotchi and its reset button, that they can.

Read the full review here! Wardrobe Ensemble are back on tour with Education, Education, Education in the new year – buy tickets here for the ultimate 90s nostalgia fest!

Bristol-based Site-specific Theatre

Raucous‘s Ice Road at Jacob’s Wells Baths 

It’s late. We’re walking into a snow-covered scene, carrying a rose to ‘pay our respects’, and we’re greeted by rows of radios that remind us of gravestones that we pick up and put around our necks – and just like that, in walking from one room to another, Raucous’ Ice Road has taken us back in time and into a war-torn Russia. But, this impressively immersive performance really begins in the bar beforehand. With propaganda posters plastering the walls and lights flickering in their lanterns – and after a shot of vodka (when in Russia!) – three orphans, Leah, Tati, and Zoya, move amongst us, mouthing-off in Russian, attempting to find the missing Kub. After leading us by lantern into the performance space, the story follows their survival in a volatile landscape, and just what we’ll sacrifice for warmth in the winter and refuge from war, from a flute to your fellow man. 

Masters of the immersive, the emotive, and performances with a political immediacy, Raucous made use of the vast, cavernous Jacob’s Wells Baths in Bristol to tell this story of survival, and they used every inch of it: a structure of scaffolding and stepladders stretches to the ceiling, propaganda posters fall, seemingly, from the sky, there’s snow underfoot, and even the walls have a part to play.

Read the full review here!

Insane Root‘s The Tempest at St John on the Wall’s Crypt 

‘Be not afeard. The isle is full of noises,’ a muddling, older man murmurs to us, collected in a crypt beneath a Medieval church in the centre of Bristol as cars and buses and bits of lost conversation rumble along beyond the low door closed behind us. ‘The isle was full of noises,’ he amends, and with that opening amendment in tense alone, Insane Root Theatre have respectfully but perfectly repurposed The Tempest, Shakespeare’s most philosophical, most reflective, and most indefinite play.

The man, aged and inelegant, is Prospero, but this is the usurped ‘prince of power’ without his power; this is Prospero at the end of the play, or rather, many-a-year after the revels of the play and the epilogue’s applause has ended. Alone in his library, a homely, hearth-like creation from Sarah Warren covered in drapes and decorated with books and bric-a-brac, Chris Donnelly’s Prospero is close to the end, and not just because he’s been placed in a crypt. Carved and cavernous, it’s the corporeal and acoustic setting for Prospero’s recount of what happened to him.

Insane Root Theatre’s The Tempest balances Shakespearean tradition with exceptional adaptation, and through repurposing the text, the temporality, and the tone, the cast and creatives get closer to the heart of the play than any production of The Tempest I’ve seen, and it’s all happening right beneath the heart of Bristol.

Read the full review here!

Hamilton: An American Musical

The Room Where It Happens

This is it: ‘The Room Where It Happens’. It’s here. ‘It is Hamilton, and after a fortnight of previews, the musical chronicling the finding, founding, and fight for American freedom through the life of founding father Alexander Hamilton, it’s finally open at the Victoria Palace Theatre in London’s West End. With so much hype and hysteria, just what is it about Hamilton that makes us all want to be in ‘The Room Where It Happens’?

Telling history through rap, hip-hop, and R&B, composer Lin-Manuel Miranda makes America’s past matter through contemporary music and a cast-of-colour who play the mostly white political players of the late-18th century. With characters and songs taking their cue both from the founding fathers who wrote America into existence and the rappers and musicians who use real-life experience to write their way to respect, Hamilton fuses the present, the past, and the future – the finale asks, ‘Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story?’ – into a harmonious whole with a heart that beats and breaks and aches. Hamilton tells not only a political history but a private one, with the story centring on the opposing views of Hamilton and his perpetual rival, Aaron Burr (Sir): one waits for it, the other works non-stop; one stands for nothing, the other rises up; one dies, the other survives.

What Hamilton has is a humanity, a humility, that makes it inimitable. As for Alexander in his America, being in ‘The Room Where It Happens’ is to be at the heart of the revolution, to see a stage that reflects real-life voices, faces, and feelings, to find not theatrical perfection, but an unforgettable phenomenon. Let’s hope, as Hamilton says, that ‘this is not a moment, it’s a movement’.

Read the full review here!

Review: Insane Root Theatre’s The Tempest

Original review: TheReviewsHub

The Tempest

A respectfully and perfectly repurposed The Tempest

‘Be not afeard. The isle is full of noises,’ a muddling, older man murmurs to us, collected in a crypt beneath a Medieval church in the centre of Bristol as cars and buses and bits of lost conversation rumble along beyond the low door closed behind us. ‘The isle was full of noises,’ he amends, and with that opening amendment in tense alone, Insane Root Theatre have respectfully but perfectly repurposed The Tempest, Shakespeare’s most philosophical, most reflective, and most indefinite play.

The man, aged and inelegant, is Prospero, but this is the usurped ‘prince of power’ without his power; this is Prospero at the end of the play, or rather, many-a-year after the revels of the play and the epilogue’s applause has ended. Alone in his library, a homely, hearth-like creation from Sarah Warren covered in drapes and decorated with books and bric-a-brac, Chris Donnelly’s Prospero is close to the end, and not just because he’s been placed in a crypt.

The crypt, carved and cavernous, is the corporeal and acoustic setting for Prospero’s recount of what happened to him, and he recreates the characters with some well-repurposed household trinkets: Continue reading “Review: Insane Root Theatre’s The Tempest”