Throwing shade on the RSC (reviews)

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A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Richard III, Tread the Boards at The Attic Theatre, playing in repertoire until 22nd April. Reviews by Peter Buckroyd.

Just at the moment when the RSC is butchering Shakespeare with its dreadful production of Macbeth, Tread the Boards company has come to his rescue. He is still alive and well and living in Stratford but he has moved his residence to The Attic.

This company demonstrates that actors can still be professional, can remember all their lines accurately and can be heard. There is nothing pretentious about either of these productions (there are no little girls in Christmas pyjamas pretending to be witches) and when there are gender switches they work perfectly.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream:

Nine actors play all the parts but they are often unrecognisable in their different roles. They are different characters. We are used to the actors playing Theseus and Hippolyta doubling as Oberon and Titania but I have never before seen the actors playing the lovers double as the Mechanicals. I haven’t seen a female Egeus (called Elissa here) either but it works just fine; there is nothing gendered in what she says.

John-Robert Partridge’s production is full of inventiveness. Hippolyta (Dru Stephenson) is a grumpy and reluctant bride and turns out in Act V to have a Scottish accent with ironic contemporary overtones both of conquest and reluctance to be married. The same actor is wonderful as Titania.

The Mechanicals are made contemporary with modern jobs and their play is unlike any I have seen before. The entire cast is outstanding and the doubling allows Partridge to dispense with the interjections of the lovers during the play of Pyramid and Thisbe, intersections which all need footnotes for a modern audience. Bottom, a bookseller, (Edward Manning) is suitably posh and pompous and Puck (Pete Meredith in athletic and even gymnastic vein) is lovely to watch and to listen to.

All four lovers (Joe Deverell-Smith, Kate Gee-Finch, Matilda Bott and Robert Moore) are excellent and their characters fully differentiated so there is no mistaking, as so often happens, which is which.

The long scene between Helena and Hermia is lightened by a simultaneous fight between Lysander and Demetrius while Bottom’s pompous rehearsal is lightened by simultaneous farcical attempts to sit down by the decrepit tea lady, Mrs Snug. Partridge certainly doesn’t neglect verse speaking either. It is impressive, as is his very careful and telling treatment of pauses.  This is a must-see production — witty, funny, lively, skilful and fresh.

Richard III:

Admittedly Jonathan Legg’s production is rather long, and feels it for a while before the interval especially, but it’s worth it.

It’s a masterstroke to begin the play with a scenes of Richard murdering Henry VI and the crowning of Edward IV because this enables the audience not familiar with the play to grasp the background to the play’s events and establishes a splendidly clear storytelling of a complicated story which is maintained throughout.

The nine actors from Dream are joined by John-Robert Partridge playing Richard by three actors from Stratford College (Justin Steer, Dan Hodges and Dean Sherlock) and by Daniele Sanderson who is wonderful as Margaret and so different from Dame Peggy Ashcroft.

Pete Meredith plays what seems like dozens of roles, all well. Matilda Bott as Lady Anne looked as if she was going to resist Richard but she gave in only for pragmatic reasons as shown by her reluctance and disdain for her husband at her wedding.  The stars of the production, though are Partridge as Richard and Dru Stephenson as Lady Buckingham. Their scenes together are magical.

Stephenson gives her character a huge range of mood, wile, subterfuge and naivety. Partridge is quite simply one of the best Richards I have seen — morally, spiritually and practically hypocritical and evil and yet charismatic. His timing and verse speaking are impeccable and he is rivetting to watch. The lighting, designed by Kat Murray, cleverly accentuates Richard’s glinting eyes and gives his smiling a splendid eeriness.