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: Twelfth Night – Bristol Old Vic

Original Review for Broadway World UK

Twelfth Night

Comical, musical, and colourful

‘If music be the food of love, play on’… and play Wils Wilson does with Shakespeare’s chaotic, sharp-witted comedy. With cross-dressing, disguises, and a proto-discussion of gender politics, the text is playful and apt for contemporary adaptation, but Wilson’s production, while playing with the gendering of its couples, withdraws and occupies a decidedly dated time and space. While wonderfully entertaining, and a comical, musical, and colourful delight, without distinct commentary on the seventies setting or a timely political parallel, Bristol Old Vic and the Royal Lyceum Theatre Edinburgh’s Twelfth Night is dated to the whimsical, psychedelic revels of a 1970s evening.

Housed in a beautiful abandoned building, New Age energy abounds in this gender-bent Bohemia: Continue reading “Review: Twelfth Night – Bristol Old Vic”

Review: Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory’s Henry V – Tobacco Factory Theatres

Original review: Broadway World UK

Henry V

Like the English at Agincourt, Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory aren’t unshaken, but they are victorious

Henry V, the final play in Shakespeare’s historical tetralogy, focuses on King Henry’s campaign for France, victory at Agincourt, aggressive patriotism, coming-of-age, and eventual political treaty and promise of peace with his marriage to Katharine of Valois.

From the English court to the fields of France, the performance asks a lot of our ‘imaginary forces’, even to ‘piece out [its] imperfections with [our] thoughts’, and this overt theatricality is, like King Henry’s army at Agincourt, defensive – attacking, forgiving and apologising for its faults – and defenceless in the face of a much greater force: the audience.

And, like the English at Agincourt, Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory aren’t unshaken, but they are victorious. Elizabeth Freestone’s direction is austere, with the action playing out in a darkly industrial dystopia characterised by Lily Arnold’s greyed costumes and frayed edges, steely drama and gravel underfoot. Continue reading “Review: Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory’s Henry V – Tobacco Factory Theatres”

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”

Review: Macbeth at Tobacco Factory Theatres

Original review: The Reviews Hub

Macbeth at the Tobacco Factory

Buzzing, bloody, and bleak

Macbeth at the Tobacco Factory opens as one of Emily Dickinson’s famous works, about a fly interposing indifferently as death falls on its speaker, ends: ‘with Blue – uncertain – stumbling Buzz –’: the lighting is stark cyan, the space dark, and the electronic soundscape buzzes and breathes around us. Yet, a fly-like buzzing as one dies is not the only similarity between the atmosphere summoned by Dickinson’s unadorned words and Adele Thomas’s austere direction of Shakespeare’s death-drenched work.

Although it’s a dagger, not a fly, that the murderous Macbeth sees before him, he and his driven-mad wife, like the words of Dickinson’s dying, ‘could not see to see’: that is, as is later observed of the Lady herself, their ‘eyes are open’, ‘but their sense is shut’. Fuelled – or fooled – by the three weird sisters’ prophecy that sovereignty shall be his, the thane is blinded by ambition and soon has blood on his hands. Continue reading “Review: Macbeth at Tobacco Factory Theatres”