Merely Theatre combines a ‘stripped back’ approach of play essentials, basic set and costume, and barely any props with full on energy, enthusiasm, and engagement with text and audience. The five strong cast – which is assembled from a pool of ten actors – tackle Shakespeare with verve, understanding and carrying vocal power in plays cut down to 90 minutes of action.
Currently presenting A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Henry V on their first UK tour, the company uses gender-blind casting. The pool of ten actors is made up of ‘twinned’ pairs, one male and one female, working on the same characters, with the performing cast then made up of one from each of these pairs. It would be interesting to know how the selection process works, but the essence of this approach is clear and well declared by the company, which “does not draw attention to its gender blind conceit in the shows themselves. Merely Theatre simply take gender out of the equation. By making it a non-issue in their practice, it frees the creative team up to focus on perfecting what they see as the fundamentals of Shakespeare – clarity, focus, stakes, pace, sweat, and active choices.” Indeed, the focus on the characters, what they want and the actions they take shines through in the pared down, fast moving plays, with the text well-illuminated.
On this day, the same cast performed in both plays – an impressive feat. It gave those who saw both plays the chance to see the same actors in two different Shakespeare genres: the wild comedy of the Dream and the rousing history play of one of England’s great hero kings. Comedy also threads through Henry V, though probably not initially intentional when it comes to the English lords’ discussion of those ‘weasel Scots’! Humour, lightly handled for the most part, contrasted well with the weightier moments of Henry’s campaigns in France, and the miracle – for the English – that was the battle of Agincourt. Depth of thought and feeling came through affectingly, and tangibly held the audience – a beautiful contrast, too, to the tear-inducingly hilarious play within a play of the Dream, where amateur actors put on a performance for the court that is designed to delight the main play’s audiences to the utmost.
Lighting changes are kept to a minimum in Christopher Nairne’s design, mostly with house lights on, contributing to an impression of productions that could also play well outdoors (and reflecting Elizabethan daylight staging). This minimalism highlights the effectiveness of changes, such as the torchlit ‘Harry in the night’ and the intimate close of the Dream. Florence Hazard’s set of metal framed camo-coloured hangings helps multi-role playing in the Dream particularly, while quickly executed costume changes keep characters clear, through the use of varying styles and contrasting colours, and even names depicted on football shirts for Henry V – all useful when five actors play so many roles. Football was only a visual theme, however – and cast an interesting slant on the famous tennis balls insult (go see, if you don’t yet know of this!) – rather than a concept pushed through the production. It did, though, rather neatly and aptly allow Henry the Fifth of England to be player 5, and Charles the Sixth of France to be player 6 of the opposing team.
Scott Ellis’ direction includes use of the auditorium and the audience – the latter particularly in the buoyant humour of the Dream – and allowed a company more used to playing to three sides or in the round to keep their interaction and connection to spectators, even in the proscenium arch Edwardian theatre. In the Dream, the casting of one performer as both Lysander and Demetrius – rivals in love – made for some fine comedy in the playing, but it did diminish the ability to layer reactions in the major warring lovers scene. Clarity was never lost, though, and action moved along swiftly and clearly throughout both plays.
While performances started at a vocal level which was perhaps a little higher / more pushed than needed, this quickly settled into appropriate projection, and all players shone with comic timing, formidable energy and understanding of the text: Tamara Astor displayed considerable versatility, a beautiful singing voice, and a connection to feeling through all aspects of comedy and drama, as well as to the audience; Robert Myles excelled in connecting with audience members – even when he ran the risk of scaring them – and showed strong vocal and physical dexterity; Hannah Ellis demonstrated a fine line in both bolshy belligerence and centred strength; Emmy Rose brought mischievous joy and flashes of real pain to her characters; Zena Carswell’s fluid and intelligent handling of complex thoughts was also grounded in believability.
Merely Theatre presents two strong plays, reminiscent of quality outdoor, touring productions – very interesting to see in the setting of the King’s Theatre – and is a company to be encouraged not only for their clarity of vision and approach to casting, but also for their genuinely entertaining presentation, and well understood grasp, of Shakespeare’s work, which drew delighted laughter along side gripped silent attention from young and old alike.
Well worth seeing!
A Midsummer Night’s Dream – 5 May, 14.30 (16.20) + 6 & 7 May, 19.30 (21.20) @ King’s Theatre
Henry V – 5 May, 19.30 (21.20) + 7 May, 14.30 (16.20) @ King’s Theatre