In their first national tour, Merely Theatre, who describe themselves as “the first fully gender blind Shakespeare company”, give us twin performances of Henry V and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which was hosted by Wakefield Theatre Royal last week. Though performed on separate nights, these two plays can be seen as one piece from Merely, with an emphasis on their contrasting ‘gendered’ themes of war, heroism and masculinity in Henry V and love, magic and marriage in Midsummer. With further themes of deceitful appearances and theatricality also arising from both plays, the choice to twin them as a minimalistic, gender-blind piece from the company was excellent.
It is difficult to pick out any individual member of this small cast as a favourite from either of the performances. Each time one actor begins to edge ahead of the rest, another leaps ahead with an especially stellar scene. Emmy Rose and Robert Myles held their own in smaller roles in Henry V, but it was their return as Hermia/Puck (Rose) and Bottom/Oberon (Myles) that lifted the entire performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
Rose’s Puck was mischevious and impish, armed with a water-gun and, like many of her co-stars, quick to remind the audience of the awkward yet amusing costume-changes and character cross-overs which ran throughout both shows. Myles is a force to be reckoned with as an ostentatious Bottom, whose comic scenes, though verging on indulgent at times, were memorably wild and energetic. Tamara Astor, who moved so naturally on stage and across the audience, was an obsessively enamoured Helena, a tough-talking Bardolph and even a musically-inclined Peaseblossom – with Astor even performing a song self-accompanied by an accordion.
In any production that shines in its physicality and energetic comedy, whenever roles and speeches of a more serious nature are left alone and static on the stage it might struggle. In taking on King Henry in Henry V and both of the rather thankless roles in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Lysander and Demetrius, Luke Barton had the toughest job. Barton held his own as a fresh and likeable Henry, though the king’s character felt lost,… I was skeptical at first, yet soon the characters were hurling each other across stage, scuffling behind Helena and Hermia and rolling across (and off) the stage.
Only five cast members performed every role and the production was successfully able to rely on the many winking moments of reminding the audience of this very fact. The hilarity always caused in A Midsummer Night’s Dream by Bottom and company’s farcical performance of ‘Pyramis and Thisbe’ at the close of the play belongs to the long theatrical and comedic trick of constantly reminding us that ‘this is a play’, and it was this dynamic that Midsummer in particular tapped into. Just as Snug (Rose) tells us he is not really a lion so we need not fear, the cast repeatedly tells us they are actors and we must laugh.
With so many characters performed by so little actors, I would have liked to have seen more variation from the cast – Barton’s Lysander/Demetrius theatrics were hilarious, but the two characters became somewhat unfortunately indistinguishable. David Geritus, however, was the exception to this, who was distinctive in each role he took on, be it the stuffy Peter Quince, a lusty Titania or the bombastic Pistol. Most of the ‘gender-blind’ roles of the two plays were small, but Geritus’ Titania/Hippolyta was a refreshing take on the queen that served beyond simply switching the gender by contrasting a ‘genderless’ realm of fairies to that of the heteronormative young lovers (whose men are, of course, identical).
The set and design of both performances is minimal, which lends itself to the inventive, well-routined energy that has been produced on stage by these actors and the company’s artistic director, Scott Ellis. Midsummer comes through as the stronger of the performances, as there is only so much farce and humour that can be brought to Henry V. Yet when brought together by these actors and the creativity of Merely Theatre, we are given a unique, spirited and quirky pairing of the plays.
Merely Theatre’s tour will continue across the UK with locations including Grantham, Birmingham, London and Edinburgh. A full list of tour dates and venues and ticket information can be found here.