High summer, and a hot, still evening. A full moon and a cloudless Eastbourne sky. Below the Italian Gardens, a docile lapping sea is only faintly heard. On such a night, Holywell was created for EODS and Shakespeare.
The tradition now reaches back, almost unbroken, for half a century, and on Wednesday’s opening night it was magnificently renewed with this year’s offering, A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The play is among Shakespeare’s best loved and most frequently performed, and it never fails to entrance audiences. The story bubbles with humour, sparkles with vigour and ripples with romance.
There are dangers in familiarity, though: pretty effects and a bit of fairy magic can become ends in themselves, courtiers can merely inhabit the costume rather than the character, and even the play-within-a-play can descend into buffoonery. No fear of that with a Sandra Tomlinson production. Under Sandra’s thoughtful, creative direction, this EODS show never, ever goes through the motions. It is bright, pin-sharp, inventive, and endlessly surprising.
Team Tomlinson has given its audience a complete theatrical experience here. The superb talents of the Sea Gypsies troupe enhance the action, weaving their magical dance moves alongside Titania’s delightful fairies, to James Tomlinson’s authentic original music. Andy Newell’s design team and Ryan Tate’s atmospheric lighting fully exploit the natural wooded setting, and all costumes and effects are immaculate.
As well as an inspiring director with high standards, Sandra is a scholar. Like a Baboushka doll, the Dream is not one play, but three – Nobles, Fairies and Rude Mechanicals. The latter group’s ridiculous imploding amateur dramatics in Pyramus and Thisbe are surely Shakespeare’s funniest creation – and gloriously re-created here.
In most productions, the Fairies mirror the Nobles, but Sandra takes that concept further. The roles of Duke Theseus (Anthony Lusted) and his Queen Hippolyta – an elegant, articulate and rather modern Elly Tipping – are doubled as Oberon and Titania, and the Duke’s factotum Philostrate (Dave Fricker) re-appears as Puck. And from the very first scene at court, there is an energy and a sulking friction between Theseus and Hippolyta that almost goes beyond the text. Wait on: when you later see them as Fairy King and Queen, it all makes perfect sense.
The Oberon-Puck dynamic is brilliantly portrayed. Sovereign and servant, but also sweaty Rugby mates. The outstanding Dave Fricker, unafraid to answer his master back and full of wiry physicality, is here the ultimate puppeteer, while Elly and Anthony have a seething chemistry that rips the lines from the page and flings them at each other. This is riveting, acting of the highest quality.
Theseus, you may recall, is petitioned by Aegeus – a nice blend of dignity and short temper from Michael Clarke – whose maddening daughter Hermia wants to marry the wrong suitor. No parental indulgence in ancient Athens: execution or a nunnery await Hermia unless she comes to heel. And the stage is set for a tangle of relationships between four young lovers.
The four youthful actors are highly talented and smartly responsive to each other. Helen Wood’s Hermia is a bundle of fury, Megan Good’s Helena a tinder-box of emotions, and their scenes together are electric.
Leigh Jordan and Warren Goddard both have confidence and stage presence as the suitors Lysander and Demetrius, and their key Lovers’ Scene in the second half is a little masterpiece of theatre: superbly timed and choreographed, exhaustingly physical and so fierce that you find yourself hoping the two girls don’t have to share a dressing room!
All will be resolved, of course, in good time for a night of revelries, which the Rude Mechanicals have been preparing with helplessly funny ineptitude. A hapless Richard Fisher as Peter Quince fails utterly to tame his lead actor Dave Nicholles, not the boorish-idiot Bottom sometimes portrayed, but struttingly amusing and never lost for an aside to the audience. Max Mason, Roger Tomlinson, Ash Jones and Bob Lester complete the Cast That Goes Wrong.
As the plot ends are neatly tied, we slip away into the night, richly entertained. And what remains is the magic. You may sit in all the theatre auditoriums you wish, but there is nothing quite like EODS, the night summer sky, and the Shakespeare at Holywell. By Kevin Anderson.
Photography by Paul Spink.