“Through the forest have I gone”
The impressive ruins of Stafford Castle make a grand setting for the Stafford Festival Shakespeare, now in its 23rd year, and for this year’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, successfully transported to a Victorian England of colonial conquest, starched manners and a healthy dose of Gilbert and Sullivan. An open air stage, with covered seating on three sides, expands up the grassy slope to the castle itself and is used highly effectively, whether for a royal procession to make a strong impact or a torch-bearing fairy horde to swarm over the hillside, a constant reminder that so much of this story is about the strange happenings that will ensue if you end up in a mysterious forest on Midsummer eve.
Peter Rowe’s choice to set this in the Victorian era is an effective choice and one which works well across all the earthbound levels of the play. It makes a convincing case for the quarrelling quartet of lovers – Craig Fletcher (so very good in last year’s Boy Meets Boy) and Eamonn O’Dwyer all prim posturing and carefully rolled-up sleeves as Lysander and Demetrius, Jennifer Greenwood a spirited Hermia and a confident Georgina White coming close to stealing the show as an expressively comical Helena. And the Rude Mechanicals, led by Eric Potts’ bumptious Bottom, become a group of G&S-playing minstrels, the silliness of light opera suiting them perfectly as they build up to an extended musical version of Pyramus and Thisbe, which has to be one of the funnier treatments it has ever received.
Cross-casting the Fairy court and the Athenian court usually works well and so it does here, allowing the actors to play across a wider range. Simone James is an immaculate Hippolyta, her near-wordless presence in the opening scene demanding the attention from Theseus as he goes about his ducal business, and Robert Fitch is best as the jealous Oberon, his authoritarian edges tempered by his undeniable passion for Titania. And Lanre Malaolu’s charismatic Puck is an impish delight, cleverly doubled with the more muted but equally faithful Philostrate thus reinforcing his relationship with Theseus/Oberon.
Not everything worked quite as successfully – the use of supernumeraries to beef up the number of fairies is well-judged, but an extended song and dance routine coming very late on (“we will sing and bless this place…” smacks of giving them something extra to do, when the focus should instead be on winding up the play, especially after the lengthy Rude Mechanicals skit. But slightly numbed buttocks aside, this made for a most appealing version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, a vibrant and fun-filled interpretation which serves as a strong reminder, not that they need it of course, that creative theatre can be found in the rudest of health right across the country.
The Festival is quite the undertaking, impressively so given it just runs for three weeks, with a range of catering options available onsite too, provided by The Lewis Partnership. Barbeque and deli platters can be bought to enjoy picnic-style or the more refined diner can dine in the pop-up restaurant – three guesses as to which option I went for… A local ham and guinea fowl terrine with a lip-smacking celeriac remoulade, an obscenely tasty main course of prosciutto-wrapped monkfish with a salad of courgette, peppers, baby squid and nuggets of tomato concasse, and a Valrhona chocolate and honeycomb delice set me up perfectly for the show, and all for a very reasonable price too.