Sh!t-faced Shakespeare ~ Leicester Square Theatre ~ 10.05.2016 and 17.05.2016

 

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A cast of five recreate the key plot points from A Midsummer Night’s Dream in 60 minutes – what could possibly go wrong? Oh, did I mention, one of the cast members is drunk? Yeah – that’s what could possibly go wrong.

After hearing great things about this show for years, I finally got the chance to see it live – and it was worth the wait! So much so, as soon as the show finished I booked myself in for a second visit.

With the character list reduced to the two couples – Helena and Demetrius, Hermia and Lysander – and Puck, we had time aplenty to see what damage drunk Hermia (and latterly – drunk Lysander) could do to proceedings. It seems plenty!

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Whilst I know the overall plotline, I’m not overly familiar with the in-depth dialogue of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, but as it turns out, this isn’t a problem! The show’s plot is clearly signposted by Puck, and by keeping to the core characters, it keeps the storyline here very simple and easy to follow, unlike the slurred speech of our dear Hermia, who, at times, seemed to forget she was even onstage.

A more cynical audience member might suggest this was simply acting, but if it was, it was acting of the highest order, as the other cast members struggled to restrain their giggles at times, and the erractic delivery of Shakespearean speech came across genuinely as someone who knew the text but was struggling to recall large segments due to the fogginess of an alcohol-riddled brain. It’s more likely the combination of being given free reign to improvise around the play, breaking the fourth wall, and the addition of alcohol to help loosen things up – but all the time it’s clear that these talented performers know the script inside out and are capable of still delivering key plot moments, and for the sober ones able to bend with such flexibility around the new portrayals of their drunken counterparts.

I enjoyed the performances by all the players across the two nights, but special mention has to go to our two drunks on their respective ‘drunk’ nights – Beth-Louise Priestly as Hermia and Saul Marron as Lysander. Despite the core cast being rotated, these two played the same roles on both occasions that I saw them perform, so it was fascinating to see the difference in their scenes – and to see the once-slightly-smug Saul having the tables turned when Beth-Louise was no longer the drunk one. All in good humour, of course, and it simply reiterates the point that this company are a tight-knit bunch with strong improvisation skills.

John Mitton was the third performer to play the same part both nights – as Demetrius. I think I’d really enjoy seeing him play the part drunk too, as he had a great energy about him. Interestingly he also played the part differently when dealing with his two drunken colleagues. Undoubtedly this would be related to the types of scenes they shared – as Demetrius’ scenes with Hermia were of a distinctly flirtacious nature, and his encounters with Lysander more aggressive, but still John’s interactions with both as they strayed from the scripted dialogue was different, a more soft and gentle guiding of Hermia, and a more playful encouraging of banana-throwing with Lysander (at one point the duel is reduced to one man with a sword and another with an inflatable crocodile, so this gives you an idea as to the barriers to serious Shakespearean acting he faced).

It might not be everyone’s cup of tea – often improvised performances can be divisive among audiences – but for those who enjoy seeing formats being played around with, and exploring different ways of portraying theatre in a fun way, this show is a great one to have a look at. It doesn’t take itself seriously, but the folks behind it are seriously good.

Sh!t-faced Shakespeare presenting Midsummer Night’s Dream is running at the Leicester Square Theatre until mid-June, before the team head over to the Udderbelly for a few dates in June and July performing The Merchant of Venice.

Edit 05.06.2016 – there is an extended run of Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Leicester Square Theatre, now running on selected dates up until 27th August – this will run in rep with their Udderbelly dates.

 

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Animo ~ New Diorama Theatre ~ 04.11.15 and 06.11.15

The arrival of the Suspense Festival – an eleven-day showcase of puppetry – gave me the opportunity to revisit one of my favourite pieces of theatre – Animo, by Improbable.

I first fell in love with the improvised puppetry show back in 2010, when I saw it performed in Bristol as part of an Improvisation Festival called Bristol Jam. I loved it so much I altered my travel plans the next day so I could catch a second performance before I set off back up north to Manchester.

Describing improvisation is a problem for me, I can never write or speak the words which do justice to the energy found in an improvised performance. Certainly you can go to any show and marvel at the skills of the greatest actors and singers in the country, but watching a scene unfold for the very first time is an entirely different experience to seeing one which is rehearsed. Impro takes risks, any line delivered or action taken could make or break a scene. As with all live performance there is no editing, but with unscripted performance you don’t even have that second check during writing and rehearsals to reassure you. It’s all instinct, and the beautifully inventive creations that Improbable Theatre produce time and again are a showcase of their finely-tuned instincts and creative talents.

Scenes can start with a word, an object, a solitary note on a keyboard. Scenes might be entirely silent or could be sung-through. They can be set in mundane surroundings, or on top of a mountain in the Himalayas – with the help of the cast, the scenery grows around the improvised drama. Minutes can be spent not being entirely sure what is happening onstage… then something clicks and everything makes sense. It doesn’t matter the setting or the delivery, there is always heart. Whether it’s a newspaper animal, tentatively coming to life and exploring its surroundings, or whether it’s a dancing puppet made of a bikini top, this show has a real openness and honesty to it, and it’s incredibly easy to suspend disbelief and go with the flow when you are in such capable hands.

Animo is something which has to be seen to truly understand. The two nights I visited were a collaborative effort with Improbable Theatre and Blind Summit Theatre with additional guests. Improbable’s Lee Simpson hosted both evenings, introducing the concept of the show and the team involved. Sadly his fellow co-director Phelim McDermott was not available but the very talented Guy Dartnell appeared in his place – I had been fortunate to see Guy perform Animo and Lifegame with Improbable in Bristol, and also in Angela Clerkin’s The Bear when it came to Manchester in 2013.

Joining Lee and Guy was Artistic Director of Blind Summit, Mark Down – whose extensive experience in puppetry shone throughout both shows. Alex Murdoch and Sean Garratt were new faces to me, but both were enjoyable to watch. All were ably assisted by musical maestro Steve Edis, who I have had the pleasure of seeing perform countless times. It’s a given that I will see further works by Improbable, as I have been enjoying their work for many years, and now I have Blind Summit to add to that list ready for 2016.

 

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