Now, I might have mentioned before that I’m a bit precious about Midsummer Night’s Dream. I was in a school production at the age of 13 and got a *little* bit obsessed about it. Think Reuben-and-Infinity-War-level obsession. So the two productions I’ve seen recently – both featuring aforementioned child – didn’t quite tick my purist boxes. I wanted to take the kids to a production that was more or less as Shakespeare intended and this open-air show at Hatfield House seemed to tick a lot of the boxes. Original text, Elizabethan costume, 30 mins drive from home and a 4PM start so the kids wouldn’t be too late for bed.
The only downside was it was a Sunday afternoon, when we all tend to be a bit tired after church..but I was hoping we’d get a second wind. And how challenging could it be to sit down and watch something for two hours? I’ll say at this point that preparation is key, and ideally more preparation that I did. You’re encouraged to bring a picnic but I hadn’t really planned for that, so just grabbed some leftover snacks that the babysitter on Saturday night hadn’t eaten (oh yes, Disco 2000 might be another reason that we were a *little* bit tired) and some cushions to sit on.
The journey was fairly easy apart from the very last bit. The Hatfield House estate is vast and the entrance they were using for the event parking is normally a pedestrian one, so Google Maps was not enjoying the route planning and keep telling us to do U-turns on the estate roads. Basically, if you go to an event there and the access is “via Station Lodge”, then you’re looking out for a big pair of ornate gates, directly across the road from Hatfield station. Hope that helps!
Actually parking and getting to the stage was very easy – the parking was on a field and there was a path leading down to the Elephant Dell. Two portaloos were perched on top of the opposite slope but Nathan tells me there is a toilet block if you walk a bit further away. There was an ice cream van too but no other catering so definitely BYO snacks. I was very envious of the people who were set up with a picnic table full of Prosecco and M&S food..it made my Minstrels look a bit sad.
It’s definitely worth bringing a camping chair as well, seeing as most people had. We don’t own such things because of a long term aversion to camping but I’d consider buying one just to get a better view. The cushions didn’t really help with elevation much and Eva had to perch on my lap for most of it to be able to see.
The show was probably the more challenging end of kid-suitable theatre. It was abridged only very lightly – just a line here or there really (does anyone NOT abridge that “forgeries of jealousy” speech??) so a full-on Shakespearean experience. It’s probably worth going through the story with your kids before going, so that they have an idea of what’s going on. Eva has read the “Shakespeare Stories” version and Reuben has just done the (very different) Perform version, so I didn’t bother…but I probably should have. Still, they managed to engage reasonably well, especially once I’d given in for Eva’s demands for food and opened the Minstrels (about half an hour in). After that, she focussed pretty well even though she didn’t understand everything that was going on.
It’s also performed by an all-male cast but the gender swapping is played fairly straight rather than for laughs or to make any kind of statement about gender roles in the 21st century. The obvious exception to this is Flute dressed as Thisbe, which always is a comedy moment (in our production at school, Flute was played by a girl so Thisbe was a girl dressed as a man dressed as a girl) but mainly a man in a dress is just meant o be a female character. We saw an all-male “Scottish play” in 2006ish that made some very arty statements about why they’d made Lady Macbeth a topless man but I get the impression that the Lord Chamberlain’s Men are more interested in authenticity than modernising – so the male cast is just because that’s how it would have been originally. They also performed some very intricate Tudor-style harmonies in 4 or 5 parts, which added to the authenticity. In fact, being a daytime performance with no stage lighting and no amplification the whole thing could have been transported straight from the 16th Century. Until they used a squeegee mop at the start of the second half. More on that later.
As I said earlier, most of the play was only slightly abridged but there were a few changes – most notably the lifting of Puck’s speech about Oberon and the changeling boy from the beginning of Act 2 to the very start, before the Theseus and Hippolayta bit. This did away with the character of “random fairy” and set up the fairy part of the story before anything else. It worked fine and you’d only notice if you knew the play well. When I said to Nathan that there was one bit out of sequence, he thought it was Bottom saying that their play had been chosen before Theseus actually chose it. No, that’s always been there. Along with the fact that Theseus starts the whole thing by saying it’s 4 days until his wedding, when he really means it’s tomorrow. And that Hermia had to make her choice by the next new moon without mentioning that he again means tomorrow. Even though Titania and Oberon are “ill met by moonlight”, which there wouldn’t be much of just before a new moon.
If in doubt, fairies did it.
There were a few other small tweaks to accommodate the compact cast – the characters of Snug, Snout and Starveling were all pretty much assimilated into one character and Moth was missing from the fairies – but in most ways it was the purest version of MSND I’ve ever seen. So many productions try to force a political agenda onto Shakespeare – so making Hippolayta into Theresa May and Theseus into Trump – or to set it in a particular era for no apparent reason but this was just Shakespeare for the love of Shakespeare. The words were given plenty of space and although there were some modern inflections, it was never in a smart-ass annoying way. The characters were well cast and convincing so that the gender issue never really jarred.
The kids enjoyed it once they’d settled into the language. There was plenty of physical comedy, especially during the fight in Act 3 and the scenes with Bottom in the ass’ head. I was confident they’d enjoy the play within a play at the end and it didn’t disappoint, especially with the giant wall costume that made them both laugh out loud. It might be hard going for kids younger than mine – Eva is 7 and she was just about following it. But the whole experience and the beautiful surroundings make it a great day out even if they don’t fully appreciate the play.
Only one thing needed drastic improvement and that was the weather. It looked pretty perfect on the forecast, so I’d brought coats but hadn’t bothered with any heavy rainproofing. That was something of a rookie error as the sunshine of the first half gave way to heavy clouds around Act 3ish and tipped it down during the interval.
Eva and I sheltered under a Tesco bag and Nathan and Roo spent the second half standing to avoid sitting on the wet grass. And the stage needed to be squeegee-mopped before the cast came back. It was a short second half – the first half was around 1 hr 5 and the second around 45 mins – and the rain eased off in time for the “everything’s resolved itself” bit at the end of Act 4. In fact, look what turned up just at that point:
Fairies DEFINITELY did it.
So, we went home soggy and tired and feeling like we’d seen a top-class performance. Eva said it was “rather nice” and can’t decide whether it was better than Mr Gum at the National Theatre but it certainly is on a level in her estimation. Reuben said it was “really good”, which is high praise from him. It’s touring all over the country and is on till the end of August (I think). More information here