Summer has arrived in Twickenham when you lay in the park and the people around you start practicing Shakespeare, accompanied by the screeches of passing parakeets flying over. A week of outdoor performances by the Richmond Shakespeare Society is indeed an annual tradition, each year in front of the scenic nymphs’ (or rather correctly oceanides’) fountain, respectively installed in 1909 and belonging to the grounds of the historic York House.
Last time I saw Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream in Hamburg’s Staatsoper as the opera by Benjamin Britten. It was a guest performance from London of which I remember most vividly the angelic boys choir.
This week’s staging is to be inspired by the 1940s and steampunk – while I am hyperallergic against any glamourisation of war or war times, I love the aesthetics of coppery machinery and cog wheels, combined with Victoriana dresses and wondering how technical innovation would have progressed if the microchip had never been invented. I make the connection to the steampunk Morris dancers from Carshalton I bumped into at Twickenham station recently. But admittedly so far I only witnessed rehearsals here every June, usually while I was reading graphic novels on my picnic blanket (Clockwork Angels being a steampunk favourite). The weather report is as good as it was for the last local open air event and rest tickets are available for the Saturday afternoon performance.
We bring folding chairs, settle and are very happy with the view, even though we are not directly in front of the stage. Before the performance starts an announcement is done by a gentleman standing next to the stage – without a microphone, so the content passes us and the people sitting around us. And then the actual performance starts and we still do not hear anything. I count twelve microphones hanging at different heights from the stage. In the wharf at Eel Pie Island opposite the park on the other bank of the river Thames the welding is continuing. A steward assures our row that the speakers are set up to a maximum and adds there will no refund as it is an outdoor performance. I am not sure how this relates but fifteen minutes have passed and we have only caught the odd word, probably when the hardworking docker had to scratch his nose. The steward shares that by now someone has been sent to the wharf to ask them to stop operating their noisy machinery.
A beautiful vehicle with steam rumbles towards the stage, leading a troop of people, including Rosie the Riveter. We cannot put them into any context. Another lady goes on stage and based on the reactions by the people nearby when she leaves the stage again she has just paused the play until the sound problem has been solved. So we walk around, have a look at the engine and fellow audience members – who remember the story better – give us thankfully an update on the storyline. No, we are told by the steward, the play will not start again from the beginning, whatever the outcome of the debate at the wharf is.
After twenty minutes or so the noise nearby indeed stops and the play continues or – for us the audience members not sitting in the front – begins midway. We can now clearly hear the generator powering the stage and I discover a market gap for a soundproofing folding screen for these. The microphones pick up the sound as long as people are standing straight under them but the sentences when someone’s kneels or bends down are lost completely. I feel sorry for the actors, especially during the few songs – the mics hardly pick their voices up and when they do they sound muffled. The fountain behind the stage is not even flowing. I doubt that the teenage boy sitting ahead with his ipad and headphones is trying to fix the sound and if so, he fails big time.
I now concentrate on sunbathing. And watch the beautiful, exorbitant costumes which do indeed deserve a shout out. One without any distortion.
What the makers want to tell us by putting a fairy love story in war times having cost millions of live all over the world is beyond me; that fairies are too otherworldly to care about human conflicts?
I did not bother with the printed program.
** out of 5 stars
A Midsummer Night Dream was a production of the Richmond Shakespeare Society, based at the Mary Wallace Theatre in Twickenham. Most tickets require an annual membership.
Founded in 1934 this amateur dramatic society performs Shakespeare every summer in the Fountain Gardens. We paid £15 per ticket.