The Little on the Big Stage – Taking ‘Dream’ to the RSC Open Stages

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It’s nearly a year since we first performed A Midsummer Night’s Dream, directed by Paul Beasley, and my feelings about the Open Stages performance are mixed. A huge part of me is excited to represent the theatre at the home of Shakespeare. A small part of me is terrified. I’d like to say there’s no difference between performing at The Little Theatre and at the Swan Theatre, but I can’t. All performances are in their own right special, but this is one of the biggest games in town. We have to be the best we can be.

For the showcase, we’re conflating two parts of the original show – Oberon (Rick Lamoure) and Puck (Edward Spence) from Act III Scene 2 running into Helena (Lois Cowley) and Demetrius from Act II Scene 1 and then back into Puck and Oberon from Act III Scene 2. We risk offended the purists, but there’s no pleasing every hempen homespun.

We meet in the theatre rehearsal rooms to hash out a rough rehearsal schedule and run through lines. To my delight (smugness), I remember all my words. I get filthy looks from everyone else. I hope this is because of the smugness and not because my accent is rusty. Finding rehearsal time is tricky but we get something in the diaries and run through what we remember of the blocking. It’s not bad so far, but it’s nowhere near the standard we want it to be.

We rehearse in earnest. Paul and I visit the Swan Theatre to have a look at the set. We’re using the set that’s in place for The Jew of Malta. We’re struck by how different the space is. We’re also struck by similarities. The original set had a rake staircase at the back. By a stroke of luck, the set for The Jew of Malta has one too.

We change the blocking to suit the set and finesse the finer aspects of the performance. We’ve a real opportunity to focus in on the small things. Paul beats us into shape. We’re still spending too much time discussing superheroes and whether Lois’ hair is ginger, but things are getting done.

We have one rehearsal on the stage at Stratford. I feel like my performance is a hundred times better than in the rehearsal room. Any stage will do that to you. This, though, is a different kind of high. Ian Wainwright, who’s heading the Open Stages project, gives us some pointers about using the stage to the best of its ability. We leave grateful and excited.

We cram in some more rehearsals and get to grips once more with the props and the costume, courtesy of Lisa Thirlby and John Bale, and then it’s the day and we’re on stage running through for the technical side of things. Following that, we mooch along the Avon and eat hot dogs and fudge. It’s not the brightest day, but we’re all walking on sunshine.

Finally, we get into the dressing room with all the other first act performers. We marvel at the range of costumes and people that are here to share the same stage. We’re closing the act so we get to make it go out with a bang. One of the Telford group loves our costumes and asks if he can take our picture.

One by one, each group goes down to perform their piece. We can’t see or hear the show from where we are. I think I might go mad with the waiting and try to settle the oil-slick feeling in my stomach. I blame the fudge, but know that it’s nerves.

And then it’s time. The group before us finish and we sneak into the back of the auditorium. It looks like a packed house. The lights go up and Rick swaggers onto stage. The performance is kind of a blur. The nerves leave you as soon as you get onto stage and the business part of the brain takes over. The audience are somewhere in the haze: gratifyingly, I can hear them laughing. Ten minutes seems a long time in the rehearsal room. On the stage it’s a few seconds.

Back in the dressing room we’re inundated with plaudits from the second act groups. My favourite is from an American from the Midwest, who’s performing in The Taming of the Shrew, who says our accents were flawless. My soul, as the Bard has it, is in the sky.

Despite the unexpected adulation, we make it to our seats before the second half begins. We laugh and clap and cheer for everyone – it’s that kind of night. After it’s all over we head to the Dirty Duck for a celebratory drink. Paul tells us that he overheard someone saying that they’d rather see our whole full-length production than the other ten minute selections. The RSC Stage Manager said that we could well have been a professional company. Ian singles us out for praise too. Is that warm feeling inside the praise or the drink?

We knew going in to the production a year ago that there might be the chance of performing at Stratford. I’m glad that it came to fruition. It’s a testament to the hard work put in by all the cast and crew over the original run and for this extra outing too. It’s a wonderful experience and one I hope that others get the chance of doing in the future. You may have to fight me for it: it was incredible. Demetrius’ lines sum the experience up best:

“Are you sure that we are awake? It seems to me that yet we sleep, we dream.”

Nick Palmer