Puck, Titania and Oberon – photos supplied by Echo Youth Theatre
The once cavernous space of the former Barclays banking hall, now known as Open, has been subdivided with a rather odd superstructure which I gather is soon to be removed. If this allows more room for a capacity audience for shows like this it is a welcome move.
Echo Youth Theatre are a relatively new company established less than a year ago who nurture the talents of future stars to great effect. Their first big production, an adaptation of the Francis Hodgson Burnett classic ‘A Little Princess’ was ambitious but delightful.
They have now tackled Shakespeare head-on with the perennial favourite ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’. This is the most accessible and joyous of Shakespeare’s works but is complex with a long list of key characters demanding a talented and versatile cast. This group of school-age performers rose to the task magnificently. Director Kerry Stanley has created a ‘Dream’ that retains all the cleverness of the original but adds a big dollop of fun to create a thoroughly enjoyable show.
As we are ushered to our seats we walk into a jungle of strange lights, shadowy foliage and rather exuberant creatures running around whooping, barking and dashing about with great enthusiasm. These young fairies give us a taste of the thrills to come in a production that adds circus skills to the mix as they tumble and bounce their ways around the simple set.
When the play starts we soon see the steampunk inspired design theme tailored to denote the status of the characters. It works well and matches the quirkiness of the Director’s approach which highlights the action in gesture and manner appropriate to the youthfulness of the cast. They mix the most modern of gestures and attitudes with the pithiness of the original verse.
The Duke of Athens, Theseus (Anna Ryan) is set to marry Hippolyta (Jenny Nicol) but is being lobbied by pushy Lord Egeus (Ethan Kemp) to persuade errant his daughter to marry his choice Demetrius rather than Lysander, who she is devoted to. These nobles assert their status from the raised stage, while most of the action of the play takes place in the round closer to the audience. They come across as suitably pompous and out of touch.
Meanwhile daughter Hermia (Amy English) plots with Lysander (Louis Miller) to run off into the woods before her forced marriage. She confides in her friend Helena (Nell Basley) who conversely is devoted to Demetrius (Harry Wilson). Helena tells Demetrius of the escape plot hoping to secure his affections and all four young Athenians run off to the woods.
Meanwhile the rude mechanicals meet to try and create a little play to offer to the nuptial ceremony of Theseus and Hippolyta. Kylara Pope plays the director Peter Quince, trying to harness all the limited talents of his cast while constraining the exuberant Bottom (Natasha Nudd). Archie Robertson plays the hapless Flute, playing the love interest Thisbe to Bottom’s Pyramus. The cross gender casting of these two is a brilliant touch that gives added value to the humour of the play. The modest Snug, who plays the roaring lion, is brought to us by the tiniest member of the cast Skye Meekings, while Teejay Toomer gives us a kooky Tom Snout playing Moonshine. Ethan Kemp doubles as the tremulous Robin Starveling playing the Wall with a very wobbly chink.
In the woods we are in the kingdom of the fairies where Oberon (Toby Ellett) is a super gymnastic sprite while Titania (Posy O’Rourke) is his elegant queen. Oberon plans a trick upon Titania by making her fall in love with the first creature she sees upon waking, the ass-masked Bottom slumbering after rehearsals. Oberon’s agent of mischief is Puck dashing hither and thither to work his flowery magic. Oberon tries to intervene with the four young Athenian lovers, but Puck casts spells on the wrong ones with predictably chaotic results.
The set pieces between the young Athenians are brilliantly portrayed with each actor creating a distinctive and engaging character. They bring new dimensions of teenage pout and pathos to the already rich script and give us four completely believable young lovers.
The play keeps up a brisk pace and packs in many lively scenes held together by the swirling pack of fairies and one central and glorious character – the mischievous Puck. Twelve year old Korben White takes this part to new levels of skill and madness creating a distinctive, memorable and hugely enjoyable performance that delighted the audience. I particularly liked the way he marked his stage exits with maniacal laughter while scurrying into the shadows.
This is a lively, fast paced and hugely enjoyable ‘Dream’ that should help a new generation to discover the relevance and exuberance of Shakespeare. The design, staging and characterisation could all inspire many older and more experienced casts to look again at the fun to be had from this play. There were none of the stumbles or hesitations that some might expect from school age performers, this was a cast that knew their stuff and enjoyed putting it across with huge confidence and enjoyment. The disciplines learned in producing this play will help these young stars throughout their lives, and there are one or two who I am confident we will see in many theatrical triumphs yet to come. Norwich is blessed to have such talented people amongst us.
© Julian Swainson 2018