I cast my mind back some 20+ years to when we were forced to study Shakespeare in School. As a teenage boy, I have two memories of Shakespeare and probably because I was a teenage boy they were both immature, the first being the film of Macbeth when to our surprise the 3 Witches were naked, and the second was sniggering at the names of Bottom and Puck in A Midsummer Nights Dream. I dreaded reading the words in class, even being a bright student with good GCSE’s and the immature memories shared I did not develop a love of Shakespeare. Hearing classmates in turn read it out in monotone voices, unsure of what the words meant, where the story was heading and dreading having to read it myself it is fair to say it was my least favourite thing. I do however love the theatre and before my accident put pay to easy access visits I was a regular visitor, to a number of plays, operas and musicals. Even if I didn’t always enjoy the play, I enjoyed the trip, at least one or two of the actors and the theatre experience.
Strange Fascination Theatre company changed all this in one production of A Midsummer Nights Dream on a sunny afternoon at the Kings Head Meadow in Wymondham. I feel it is important at this point to declare a lifelong friend was performing in the play and helps run the company, however this friendship in no way shape or form has influenced this blog. In fact I do not think he even reads my blog as with his own business, 3 kids and performing I have no idea how he does all that he does. Strange Fascination Theatre Company offered to perform for free at the community picnic I was involved in organising, following our protest at KHM to save the park. They did this as my friend Paul wanted to give something back to the community he was brought up in to support keeping the play area we played in, and that our children now play in, and that our parents played in before us. In doing so not only did they captivate the minds of hundreds they changed something inside me. I can be quick to complain and moan, when you always look up in the world from a wheelchair, are often ignored by the world it is easy to become negative. I have to say though that Strange Fascination Theatre’s production of A midsummer nights dream was the best performance of any theatrical performance I have seen. They kept very closely to the bards original version and performed it in such a way that I think he would have loved. I’d always thought of his plays as boring, tragedies and comedies I couldn’t see how they were different. Monday it clicked, and the fun way the 5 actors performed not only made the story line click, but also the humour behind Shakespeares plays. I can’t help but think having this tour our high schools would be a far more immersive and enjoyable way of them learning, but then what do I know.
Now being a wheelchair user I find attending theatres very difficult, there is only a small % of wheelchair spaces compared to seats and for the popular shows tickets go far too quickly for me to even get the opportunity to see a show, the opportunity to watch 5 actors perform a show in a field that is accessible was something I was really looking forward too. Even if I do say it was with apprehension. My distaste for Shakespeare from school meant I was not sure this was going to be inspirational, however the rave reviews, the fact that my friend was performing and that he had convinced his fellow actors to perform for free for us meant I positioned my wheelchair in centre stage, when I say stage I mean centre of a relatively small area of grassland, that had been set up by the theatre company actors, and I understand the costumes worn and set used were also all made/adapted by one or more of the actors too.
Not knowing what to expect I sat with family and friends and the numbers of people around us swelled and swelled to the point that there was over 300 people waiting to see the performance. Shortly before curtain up the actors in character started to appear coming through the crowd, laughing and joking with us, telling us off for invading their garden and lightening the mood. There was a real mix in the crowd with babies of around a few months to senior members of society. I wouldn’t want to offend anyone but I know of several 70+ in the crowd. You had a mix of professional picnickers with baskets, crockery, glasses, cheese and wine and then you had me with my supermarket mega deal with fruit and a bottle of coke. Quickly my LG spotted Puck who she described as the Naughty, Cheeky Fairy, and I and a friend were set upon with him being accused of looking like a Councillor. What was so lovely about this performance was the obvious ad lib elements that the cast slipped in as if it was a line they used in every performance. The whole performance was put on in support of the community who took on the council, protested about removing the play area and the concoction of reasons given ranging from pigeongate to the noise of children playing making them prisoners in their own homes. All of these made their way into the performance and it just made it personal and enjoyable.
At 2.00pm the performance proper started and immediately the actors were full of energy, delivering their lines in a combination of well executed Shakespearean prose, comedy timing, and linked this with a number of quick costume changes as the 5 actors took on a number of roles each. These were done quickly, professionally and instantly a whole new persona was taken on as Oberon became Lysander or Egeus and Theseus became Demetrius or Bottom and Puck becomes Hermia and so on. The costumes expertly made by the actor who played Titania enabled the characters to change seamlessly and effortlessly (although in the searing heat I am sure it was anything but effortlessly but they made it appear that way) and a new character was born. The twist of the actor playing Snug (the Lion) & Snout (the Wall) being French allowed 21st Century Brexit Jokes into the play and the actor playing these roles was hilariously funny in them, as well as being serious and sincere in her role as Helena (and an excellent flutist to boot).
I cannot praise this production highly enough, they had a 20 minute interval half way through the performance and I didn’t want them to stop ( this said even during their interval the cast mingled with the crowd) and for someone who is in constant pain, who cannot sit comfortably for any length of time to be so transfixed by a performance it speaks volumes for their talent. Yes I was uncomfortable even sat in my wheelchair, yes the pain was spiking and the medication was being taken but I was so engrossed with what was happening in front of me that I almost couldn’t believe my eyes, nor the fact that I wanted to sit through another hour of it.
It is testament to the quality of the play that as the second half began children and adults alike returned to their seats and blankets. Kids came running from the playground (yes a playground), parents returned from the bar and the ice cream van and instantly once again we were all drawn into the world of Shakespeare. I despite studying it for weeks at school finally realised what the plot line was all about, who was in love with who, and why. Why it was forbidden and then the part Oberon and Puck played, how things became muddled, the audience were involved with constant jokes and flirtations, Children pulled in to play the servants to Bottom, more ad libs as children ran on set and Oberon joked that children should “be quiet, what did they think it was a play area”, more costume changes, a play within a play as Ze Lion was roaring as were the crowd at her acting and the steed Pyramus or should I say the Ass Bottom came riding in on. His lines perfectly muddled and corrected by a frequently infuriated Quince. As with the first half, their timing was perfect, costumes (and changes) brilliant, dialogue and acting first class and the second half too was also over too quickly for the liking of the crowd. The actors must have been sweating gallons but they didn’t just disappear at the end, no they mingled, spoke to some of their regular followers, met their new following, posed for pictures and entertained the many questions asked.
This was the last performance of the season of this play and I can fully understand why reviewers far more talented, although perhaps not as skeptical as me have raved about the play. It really was a masterpiece, I cannot decide whether I want to see them tour the same play again next summer which perfectly aligns itself up to open air, accessible theatre (along with me there were several other wheelchair users in the crowd not limited to the 2-6 spaces in a lot of theatres), or whether I want to see them reproduce another Masterpiece, do Strange Fascination Theatre have their own groupies, what would they be called? Either way they have many new fans following this performance and their fans won’t come much stranger than me!
Paul Andrew Goldsmith, Simon Michael Morgan, Daisy Plackett, Hayley Evenett, Steph Smoores Moore of Strange Fascination Theatre take one more bow, your on set relationships and connections were intoxicating, your character impersonations sublime, story line honest yet original and most of all you captivated the hearts and minds of so many people watching. Me being one of them. The best Shakespearean play I have seen and the most fun I’ve had in years.