ENGLISH SHAKESPEARE COMPANY:
Beowulf/A Midsummer Night's Dream
New Theatre, Oxford/touring
Opened 8 March, 1997

After a three-year hiatus, the English Shakespeare Company has returned to large-scale touring with Michael Bogdanov's adaptation for children of Beowulf and a version of A Midsummer Night's Dream which should see the sales figures for Sellotape climb through the roof.

Beowulf, intended for eight- to twelve-year-olds, concentrates on bare-bones but vivid narrative (preserving the muscular stresses and alliterations of the original Anglo-Saxon verse as far as reasonably possible) and visual spectacle. L!ve TV advertised its soap Canary Wharf with the slogan "You're never more than five minutes from a snog"; with Bogdanov's Beowulf, you're never more than five minutes from a battle, an old Danish chant or a sword-dance. This last can grate a little every time a celebration is called for onstage, one knows that several of the cast are likely to launch into a routine probably known to the choreographers of the Killingworth Sword Dancers as "Mrs. Widgery's Lodger" or some such but is interspersed with bouts of acrobatic tumbling and scenes of combat fought in silhouette, enabling the monster Grendel and its mother to appear as huge, indeterminate, shambling figures. Judging by the reaction of a youthful Saturday afternoon audience in Oxford, the show is a distinct success.

The opening sound of A Midsummer Night's Dream is that of Sellotape being unrolled. Around a mile and a half of the stuff is employed during the subsequent three and a quarter hours, transforming a stage scattered with doorways and picture frames into a glittering, chaotic web such that Titania, for instance, becomes literally stuck on Bottom. Phelim McDermott and Julian Crouch's idea is simple but brilliant, serving to create a visual motif for the otherworldly entanglements of the play as Julian Bleach's shaven-headed, leering Puck cuts sinister capers like an over-excited cousin of Klaus Kinski's Nosferatu; at one point he rides on the back of a stilted, quadruped fairy resembling something from a Salvador Dalí nightmare.

The play is taken at a slow, weighty pace which for as much as the first 45 minutes threatens to bog events down until the scenes in the wood take on their own macabre, dreamlike grace. Individual actors cope with their slowed-down lines with varying degrees of success: Andrew Jarvis as Theseus and Oberon shows a propensity for Peter Hall-ese end-stopping, whilst the female lovers (Jackie Morrison's golly-gosh Hermia and Victoria Finney's big-haired, vexed Helena) emerge as more appealing than either of their suitors. The mechanicals seem to have walked out of Passport To Pimlico, and are costumed for their own playlet in exuberant examples of Bottom's basket-weaving skill; Jonathan Coyne's Quince hits the right note of polite little-Napoleonics, and Malcolm Scates does not overdo the ebullience of Bottom.

McDermott and Crouch have created a Dream which is not quite a nightmare, but follows its own crazy logic in often uncomfortable directions, and one whose shadows particularly for Oberon and Titania do not vanish with the morning dew. It requires patience from the audience in its early stages, but amply repays such an investment.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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