William Shakespeare’s anniversary of death in 1616 approaches next month, but Merely Theatre’s brief stay at the Devonshire Park last week brought the Bard’s work timelessly and vividly alive.
Getting Shakespeare to the stage at all is a challenge in the modern, cost-constrained age.
Full-scale professional productions with two dozen actors need the massive resources of Stratford, the National or the Barbican – or, of course, they are still within the scope of good amateur companies, as EODS admirably demonstrate each July at Holywell.
But the only other avenue is the one which Merely Theatre has chosen.
With precious, irreplaceable Arts Council support – and no doubt, a sensible deal struck with Chris Jordan’s Eastbourne Theatres – a resourceful small-scale company can still mount a tour.
You may have to work to a budget on personnel, sets and costumes, but there is no price limit ever placed on the theatre of imagination, creativity and energy. Not without reason, the great director Peter Brook titled his seminal work on theatre “The Empty Space”. And my goodness, how Merely Theatre fills it!
You know what you’re getting, then. The stripped-down, small-cast approach which Merely Theatre brings to its productions is actually virtue as well as necessity. Stripped of fussy costumes, stylised sets and anything more than minimal props, the performers have nowhere to hide and no need to hide. Suddenly, characterisation is everything, and the text is their single most powerful tool.
For Merely Theatre, it is not only a mission but a passion. This exuberant young company bubbles, tumbles and buffets its way through a performance like rushing water over rapids.
The actors – only five of them, but drawn from a company “pool” of ten – tackled A Midsummer Night’s Dream with confidence, energy and endless invention.
Parts are not simply doubled but quadrupled as a complicated plot unfolds with frantic pace, but absolute clarity.
Best moments? Zena Carswell, breathlessly playing both of the male suitors Lysander and Demtrius on stage at the same time. An impish, impertinent Emmy Rose reminding us that Puck gave “puckish” to the English language. Tamara Astor as alternately gauche Flute and elegant Helena. Robert Miles and Hannah Ellis bringing beautifully judged chemistry to Oberon and Titania. Oh, and Robert dying more extravagantly and slowly than possibly any Pyramus in stage history.
Director Scott Ellis lets the action flow, and the actors clearly need no heavy touch: rehearsing this one must have been a blast. Florence Hazard has designed a nicely adaptable ring of arches, allowing swift exits and entrances – with an occasional three-second costume change.
If there is a slight reservation, the actors did very occasionally try too hard to hammer out the pentameters. Shakespeare’s blank verse is naturally fluent and musical, but it can get a little bit percussive. But set against the production’s merits, it is a carping criticism.
The style is naturally suited to the madcap nature of a play like the Dream, full of colourful comic characters and quick-fire dialogue. My diary did not permit me to see last week’s tandem production of Henry V, a play which counter-balances the humour with the heroism, but the actors’ command of the text is so good that they are sure to have brought bravura to that play too. Not sure about a Lear or a Hamlet, but perhaps Merely Theatre will tackle the heavy stuff on the next tour!
This is cracking theatre, and a triumph of resourcefulness and invention. Far from reverently marking Shakespeare’s death, this company has the theatre resonating irreverently with life. And the Bard’s own words seem never more apt: “So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.”