It is incredibly hard to pick up a Shakespeare play, with all its multilayered plots and complexities, and place it in a different time and place. Many have tried with varied successes. A popular route, used by many well meaning high school movie Directors, is to take the bare bones of the story and adapt it to the point where many of the subtler, more distinctive aspects of the plot are lost. However, the Manchester Shakespeare Company have managed to update A Midsummer Night’s Dream for a modern audience without resorting to diluting or dumbing down the plot. Crucially, they have also made a new and original performance in its own right.
Summers Dreaming 1973 is what I would describe as a successful Shakespearean adaptation. It is also a loving and genuine homage to the era of the 1970s; the music, the clothes, the bawdy slapstick humour. Writers and Directors John Topliff and Gina Frost were cabaret stars at the beginning of their career and this passion is threaded nostalgically throughout the play, which at times has notes of Morecambe and Wise. However, the play never slips into mawkishness and the 1970s setting never feels forced. Indeed, the social class parallels made between Elizabethan society and the 1970s are quite compelling. If any of Shakespeare’s plays were to be placed in the 1970s, then it would certainly be A Midsummer Night’s Dream; trippy, surreal and counter cultural.
The play Summer Dreaming 1973 is certainly a new take, yet it also remains diligently faithful scene to scene to the original. From speaking personally to John Topliff and Gina Frost before the play, it was clear that they had both a scholarly attention to literary detail and theatrical devices. Topliff’s experience as a former English Teacher certainly shows through the careful and pedantic hands that guide the famous plot. Most of the language used throughout the play is contemporary, colloquial Mancunian. However, the conversations between characters remain remarkably similar despite this, with snatches of original Shakespeare text here and there. More so than many other Shakespearean comedy performances, Summer Dreaming is a very considered and witty character exploration. After all, it is the characters that keep Shakespeare’s stories timeless and endlessly adaptable.
The reimagining of Frances Flute and Hermia as second generation women’s libbers feels timely and relevant, and gives much more of a strong female presence to the play through these two incredibly funny actresses (Charlotte Rhodes and Ellen Rogerson). Rhodes Frances “Frankie” Flute is opinionated and outspoken whereas Rogerson’s Hermia is an uptight and witty comic partner to Josh Fyson’s wonderfully dozy Leroy Sander (Lysander in the original). Oberon (Tony Charnock) as a free loving hippy feels like a natural decision as does Peter Quince (Tony Charnock) as a straight talking, northern Union Leader. It didn’t even bother me too much about the presence of Prince Charles and Princess Diana in a 1970s setting. Not only is Aiden J Harvey’s impression of Prince Charles fabulously accurate, but reimagining Theseus and Hippolyta as a 20th century celebrity tabloid royal couple feels somehow right. This is also true for Jess Wood’s updated Demetrius as spoilt and fickle Businessman’s son Donald Truss.
The cast are astoundingly good with an abundance of comic talent between them; each with a stage presence that seems to transcend the modest, cosy theatre space around them. The singing is brilliant, and there are a number of flawless solos. Particularly memorable is Sophie Grace Toland as lovelorn Helena who gives a real belter of a vocal performance that is surprisingly emotional in the midst of an overall comical performance; showing off her significant acting range. The chemistry between the cast members is palpable and genuine. You get the sense that even after practising and performing the play together numerous times, the cast still enjoy acting together and are still amused by each other’s lines. There were a couple of moments of corpsing on the night of my visit but these were pulled of pretty well and corpsing was after all a well regarded theatrical device in Shakespeare’s day as a means of inducing audience laughter.
Particularly hilarious performances come from Allyn Thomas who plays Robbo Goodstuff (known as Puck in the original text). Thomas is a born Comedian with expert comic timing and the ability to embody a character fully with every gesture, eye movement and syllable. Sophie Ann Ellicot plays the Fairy Queen Titania as a temptress with a twinkly eyed vivacity. Ellicot has a brilliantly expressive face and her scenes with Nick Bottom are some of the funniest and most memorable in the play. Dale Vicker who played Nick Bottom, shown here to be a head-in-the-clouds aspiring actor, has a naturally down to earth and humorous stage presence that commands every scene.
The laugh out loud humour of Shakespeare comedies often, sadly gets lost with more by-the-book renditions with authenticity often displacing entertainment value. However, in this performance the centuries old jokes feel fresh and relevant. The final scene of the play within a play had me in stitches. The genuine waves of laughter from the packed audience was a review in itself. I would recommend Summers Dreaming not only to Shakespeare fans but also to those who enjoy good, irreverent comedy in general. Perfect Friday night fun.