CLS MEMORIES: A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Posted on: December 21, 2021 in: Uncategorised

It all started in 1998 with a series of concerts to celebrate music written about Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream (MSND). Weber Oberon and Britten’s own eponymous opera were the obvious works to include in the series but the third work chosen: the complete incidental music to MSND by Mendelssohn presented quite a few challenges in playing all those gorgeous little bits of fairy music so that they made ‘sense’. The solution was a collaboration with the Royal Shakespeare Company on a staged ‘reading’ of the play but once in the rehearsal room things started to develop. 21 performances in 13 concert halls, four theatres, one royal palace and one muddy field later, CLS had a show that delighted audiences and established our reputation for successfully combining words and live orchestra on stage. Here Jonathan Best the director and originator of this amazing project, reflects on his creation:

I’ve always been a bit dubious about play readings. Actors stuck behind their scripts are prevented from doing so much of what makes good acting engaging and enjoyable. There’s a barrier there. And that’s never more strongly felt than when the play is supposed to be a comedy. Comedy needs the actor to be freed from the script, to be able to make full eye contact with the audience, and with the other actors. The opportunities for non-verbal comedy, the little glances, gestures, expressions –  the ineffable spontaneous moments that make great comedy acting –  need to have their space and freedom. Reading from scripts was never my plan.

On the other hand, with only two weeks rehearsal and all the complexity of synchronising the play with the music, working entirely off-script, or fully staging the show, were not plausible options either. We needed a clever in-between solution which would enable us both to have our cake and eat it.

Bottom (Trevor Cooper) with Thisbe’s mantle

The answer was suggested to me by a very experienced theatre director friend named Jon Tarlton; ‘you could do it as a Victorian after-dinner drawing-room entertainment’ he said. It all fitted together nicely – the actors could be a family and their friends who have eaten together and then convene to read the play, while they listen to a gramophone record of Mendelssohn’s music. The music itself connects the play to the Victorian era, and Victorian costumes would make visual sense of Mendelssohn and Shakespeare in partnership. My hope was that as the play unfolded and gathered pace, the actors would feel confident to abandon simply reading and break out into more fully-fledged acting performances, using items of furniture and bits and pieces in the room as improvised props. 

The lovely thing about this idea was that the actors got to keep their scripts – just in case they needed them – but they could also fling them aside when they felt able and let the play itself rip. Audience and actors could meet each other properly, in a way that a formal ‘reading’ of a play just does not allow. We could have some fun together.  

Pyramus (Trevor Cooper) and Thisbe (Stephen Mangan) talk through the chink in the Wall (Alan David)

Most of the actors we worked with already knew the play inside out, having done it several times – so they were more than ready to go with the idea. It’s twenty-five years ago that we cooked all this up, so I can’t remember many details, but the lion whose mane was a lampshade and Bottom wearing Turkish slippers for ears stay in my memory, as does Helena being rolled up in the rug and sat upon!    

My memory of the project is inseparable from my memory of Richard – beaming with pleasure at the actors, laughing at the jokes no matter how many times he’d heard them before, and then turning, his face suddenly serious, back to the orchestra to direct the next piece of music. It was a privilege and an enormous amount of fun to spend that time with him and with the wonderful musicians of CLS. 

Stephen Beard as Starveling ‘The man in the moon’

The actors who worked on MSND have included: Desmond Barritt, Samantha Bond, Nikki Amuka Bird, Trevor Cooper, Alan David, Kate Duchene, Rebecca Egan, Adam Godley, Michael Maloney, Stephen Mangan, Trevor Peacock, Rachel Pickup, David Tennant, Zubin Varla, Philip Voss, Zoe Waites and Greg Wise.

After MSND Jonathan directed Schaffer’ Amadeus and Mendelssohn in Scotland for CLS, both with full orchestra on stage with the action.