"A Dream of a Dream"
by Arthur Duncan for remotegoat on 23/09/10

Where the cast is happily working together, a show is guaranteed success - not by artistic and technical skills alone but by company spirit; 'good vibes', a positive ambience that encompasses actors and audience in a benign conspiracy. Disbelief is suspended as all join the game, eager to share in its delights, its anguish, its anger, fear, courage - markers en route to the wished-for conclusion, happy or tragic; the cathartic experience for which drama was evolved - "The play's the thing" and a high quality performance, the chief goal. Bike Shed's "Dream" achieves all this.

Dual directors, Katie Villa and Fin Irwin created a virtual miracle in assembling such a well-suited and adaptable cast to convey convincingly, these dual worlds of politic reality and dreamed-of spirits. The production's enforced relocation from the cramped Bike Shed basement into the imaginably limitless expanse of the Northcott Theatre's dark auditorium, created a complication I feel was "devoutly to be wished."

The play opens on the mezzanine floor of the Northcott theatre, where audiences gather over drinks in convivial chatter. The steep ceiling and high vaulted windows aptly suit the setting: The space becomes a grand reception hall of noble proportions. Patrons wait as do dignitaries at a palatial function, uneasily anticipating the entrance of their host; Theseus with his Consort and a retinue of courtiers.

And regally indeed do Tom Sherman & Robyn Steyn grace the company, floating down the wide stair. Sherman is sturdy and commanding as the noble duke who won his bride with a bloody sword, now smiling, a countenance of civility, martial cruelty sheathed under smart apparel. The beauty of Hippolyta seems carved, her features smooth as marble; her eyes as hard; her articulation, superior; her movements, hinting of another world. The affianced couple seem indeed, "to the manner born."

So at once we have a marriage between lovers of theatre; those who act, co-habiting with those who watch, and all most proper to the opening scene, a rich reception. Despite reverberating off the hard surfaces, the thrust of the plot is clearly spelled out before we are ushered from the bar into the auditorium.

This has been transformed into a quiet, mysterious, dark and magical land, peopled by Titania's gossamer-swaithed faery subjects. We are in the realm of King Oberon where the battle of the sexes continues but unlike the accord affianced among former enemies in Theseus's 'real world', here the dream's end is yet uncertain. So the entire theatre with its audience, joins in the play, the building itself, becomes a principal actor: Ducal palace and magical world of Faeryland.

Across the dim-lit boards, we pick our way over writhing 'faery' bodies to find a place on chairs in formal rows, incongruously set in two blocks, one either side of the acting floor that traverses upstage and down, between the seating. Auditorium seats rise away into the gloom, out of bounds to mortals but haunted by fluid, fleeting figures in diaphanous weeds, secretly tending to faery duties. These balletic spirits are in fact, Emma Cayless, Chloe Whipple, Bex Baker & Ben, (aka Paul) .

Soon Oberon and Titania bandy words across the space but as Titania leaves, Oberon summons Puck to put in train the fateful mixture of confused emotions. Every actor performs close to perfection throughout, even when having nothing specific to say or do, but without a brilliant Puck their efforts would be in vain. Brilliant is a term that suits Eli Thorn in the role but it is inadequate. He is magnificent. Just short of flying unassisted, his acrobatic agility, vocal dexterity and physical energy are stupendous. His concentration on logistics of his role, is hugely important; ie. entering from the correct place at the correct time (believe it; perhaps the hardest aspects of the part). Thorn sustains his character through a myriad alterations of mood and purpose, each in a twinkling. Puck is a part only for young actors and Eli Thorn is making hay while he may.

As the lovers and anti-lovers, Katie Villa and Elizabeth Westcott for Helena and Hermia, pair beautifully with Ben Simpson and Joe Sellman-Leava as Demetrius and Lysander. All excel as they adore like turtle-doves or squabble like fighting cocks, according as the scenes dictate. The squabble between the girls understandably arouses the mystified lads. Sensual yet masculine, both these are skilled actors indeed. Meanwhile, the pair of pugnacious women deserve total admiration for their convincing passion and tender complaints. Westcott also endures some realistically violent manhandling, adding authentic depth to her temporary rejection by both young men.

The last laugh goes appropriately to the Mechanicals, led by Peter Quince with lofty ambition for his "most lamentable comedy" and confidently portrayed by Mark Shorto. Bottom is superbly acted by Matt Lawrenson, who is also a consummate comedian, as Pyramus. His beloved Thisbe is given a sympathetic and delightful performance by David Watkinson, both as the ill-fated female and when he is Flute. A fearsome yet cuddly lion is unleashed from Lynette Reade's repetoire, joyful in her ferocity and Jeff Sleeman makes a tall Wall with a low-down 'chink', extremely funny. Mike Terry is Moonshine, as pathetic and vulnerable as everybody's favourite gran'dad. An excellent characterisation more remarkable for its contrast with Egeus, Hermia's heartless father, whom Terry also plays, forcefully well.

One of the most enjoyable performances I have seen in months, including Joe Orton's "What The Butler Saw" that I saw at the Barnfield Theatre only the evening before this one & I laughed through that, as well. All in all, Exeter is a 'Happening Place' as we used to say. But if you've never met the real Shakespeare, introduce yourself through this great show, or if you're a Bardophile, see this at least twice.

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