Approaching Shakespeare North Playhouse with my companion for the evening, a woman in jeans and a trench coat looking like a misfit Liam Gallagher bounds past us pursued by a security guard shouting at her to stop. We turn the corner to see the Playhouse windows daubed in graffiti. And people told me Prescot was genteel.
This was a portent of things to come. As we snatch a pre-show drink the woman appears again, milling with the audience, and a call is put out over the loudspeakers for any spare actors to volunteer for the evening. I even see one elderly gent approach an usher to warn her about the trench coat intruder.
We are at Shakespeare’s new home in Liverpool, a recreation – of sorts – of the Globe to see a boisterous production of Midsummer Night’s Dream staged by Not Too Tame. They promise the show will be high octane and feel ‘like a gig’, and don’t disappoint. This is a production for people who don’t get, or even like, Shakespeare – my companion is one such but was riveted to her seat the entire night.
The production is not the only spectacle, however. The building itself, somewhat pedestrian-looking from the outside, transforms into a thing of wonder once you enter the cockpit theatre. Constructed from English oak and without a nail or screw used in construction, the octagonal space – the wood still fresh smelling – is a marvel of reconstruction and imagination and viscerally transports you back to Elizabethan times. A word of warning, however: the benches are not designed for those with a bad back – make sure you get a seat with a back rest.
The play’s motif of play-within-a-play is taken at face value at the start when the actors mill around on stage at the opening, trying to drum up enough people to fill the parts – enter the would-be scally and security guard we came across outside the theatre. Audience participation is a hallmark of Not Too Tame production: we are encouraged to get up and do a dance routine and one member of the audience, Brian, is recruited to play the lion. Needless to say, he steals the show.
The pace is fast and frenetic and there is a standout performance of Bottom by Jimmy Fairhurst, our erstwhile security guard whose transfiguration into the ass and bewitchment of Titania is aided by an outsized appendage. Not Too Tame put bawd into the bard.
Actor, William Grint, who is Deaf, plays Lysander, with his lines translated into sign language throughout. His is a fine performance which transcends speech and shows the versatility and inclusiveness of the production. David Morrissey narrates the part of Oberon (‘phoning in his part’ as the stage manager quips) and his disembodied voice looms over the production like Obi-Wan Kenobi, another pop culture reference thrown in by Not Too Tame.
There are many hilarious moments in the production and the switch between Shakespeare’s text and free adaptation interspersed with choice language, which always gets the loudest laughs of the evening. And not forgetting Brian the lion, of course.
David Nellist as Theseus displays virtuoso comic talent when he is co-opted to play the part of a sprite, despite protestations to the stage manager that he is a man of 53.
Louise Haggerty (our would-be thief) mischievously prowls the stage as Puck, upbraided by Oberon for their mismatch of lovers, and is a true mistress of mayhem. The motto of the show, revealed on Bottom’s t-shirt when he is transformed into an ass, is: we’ve all been pucked.
Shakespeare, it seems, really has found a new home.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream is at Shakespeare North Playhouse from 23 September – 22 October 2022 before moving to Northern Stage, Newcastle from 29 October-12 November 2022.
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