Introducing children to the delights of Shakespeare can be a disappointing, even dismal, experience. Pre-teens generally demonstrate the concentration span of a gnat, care little about inner psychological turmoil and complain that they don’t understand all the words. Although Wee Stories has never let us down before, I escorted my daughter to their version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream with some trepidation.
The show is pitched to those aged 10+ and lasts barely over an hour – ‘slimmed down but not dumbed down’ as Artistic Director Iain Johnstone puts it in the programme notes. That being the case, some of the storyline had to be cut and it was the mechanicals that got the chop, with Hermia’s father (Egeus) cleverly substituted for Bottom to enable the plot to follow its usual course.
The cast used a combination of puppets, cut-out figures, silhouettes and huge umbrellas to disguise the fact that there were only four of them playing all the parts. This was creatively ingenious, hugely entertaining and, despite omitting the usual conveyors of humour, also provided some great laughs.
Belle Jones as Helena was an absolute riot, somewhat overshadowing her own excellent performance of Titania, as well as the rest of the cast. Having said that, the other three are no also-rans: Tommy Mullins as Puck (also Demetrius) was energetically wicked and clearly a truly accomplished performer; Andrew Rothney, who played Lysander, Oberon and Egeus provided charm, style and wit with a strong stage presence; Samantha Blaney was an earnest Hermia, who also sang with a hauntingly beautiful voice that was artfully employed to signify a change of mood, within or between scenes.
Instead of Puck’s usual round-up of proceedings, this talented quartet rounded off with a jocular rendition of ‘Dream A Little Dream’, with Samantha on the ukulele, Andrew on guitar, Tommy on percussion and Belle on double bass. The addition of a few new verses, sung by Tommy who had played Puck, apologised for the changes, explaining that some were due to current austerity measures that only allow for four when there should have been more - except if you’re the National or the RSC!
More accessible than either of the aforementioned, underfunded yet equally accomplished, this latest Wee Stories production represents a ‘compact and bijou’ remarkable introduction to Shakespeare for anyone aged about seven upwards.