Behind Clifford’s Tower, one of York’s many ancient structures, a new relic of the past has appeared. Throughout the summer, Shakespeare’s Rose theatre – the first pop-up Elizabethan theatre in Europe, its creators claim – is providing a reconstructed taste of 16th-century theatregoing.
Surrounded by a “village” of food and drink outlets, with open-air wagon entertainment that nods to York’s theatrical history, the attempt is clearly to create a festival-like sense of event at the heart of the city.
That attempt extends to the stage in Juliet Forster’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, one of four Shakespeare plays rotating in rep over the coming weeks. In the modern-meets-Elizabethan interior of the playhouse – an odd marriage of historical detail and decidedly contemporary scaffolding – Forster adorns the much-loved comedy with a surplus of circus tricks. Fairies dangle from ropes and spin in suspended hoops. In the other-worldly space of the woods, where sprites make mischief with lovers, characters are as likely to enter from the heavens as from the wings.
These aerial decorations, while often impressive, drag out the running time and do not quite manage to distract from flat, lacklustre performances. There’s a lot happening on stage at once, but not much going on in the acting itself, with precious little sense of the variation or meaning in Shakespeare’s lines. With a few exceptions – most notably Amanda Ryan, whose take on Hippolyta and Oberon subtly flags some of the play’s misogynist undertones – the cast struggle to find a way in to their roles.
The pace picks up in the second half, and the best gags, as so often in Dream, are saved for the Mechanicals. It’s not quite enough, though, to compensate for the failings elsewhere.
There’s much greater texture of meaning and unforced dynamism of staging in Lindsay Posner’s Romeo and Juliet. Maintaining Shakespeare’s setting of Verona, Posner shunts the action into the 1930s, with love and hate playing out against the backdrop of Mussolini’s Italy. Aside from the odd visual and aural reference, this context is not stressed, but it adds another, half-submerged layer of violence to the action. In this production, languid, sun-drenched cafe-hopping swiftly escalates into espresso-fuelled scraps between the warring Montagues and Capulets.
The earlier stages of the show, establishing both hatred and infatuation, are particularly compelling. Posner lightly but vividly paints the social world of the play in bustling street and party scenes. The two lovers, meanwhile, are convincingly youthful and rash in their devotion. From the start, Alexander Vlahos’s Romeo is boyish and impetuous; Alexandra Dowling as Juliet greets love with a wide-eyed, breathless wonder. It’s only as the drama approaches its inevitable conclusion that the energy wilts and the production begins to feel as though it is simply counting out the minutes until the anticipated tragedy.
For visitors, the experience as a whole – including Elizabethan garden, waxwork figures and overpriced crisps – is perhaps as important as the individual shows. The sense of novelty, aided by the sunshine, is certainly appealing. It’s worth asking, though, who this experience is really for. With groundling tickets more than double the price of those at the Globe in London and the luxury of a seat costing between £32.95 and £54.95 – not to mention the expensive goodies being hawked in the village – it’s hardly the most accessible of summer celebrations. Not so much Shakespeare for all as Shakespeare for the privileged few.
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