A Midsummer Night’s Dream. On Mid Summer Night. In A Castle.
The assembled throng is here bright and early with pickernick baskets, and this is a classy crowd – Waitrose and M&S have been cleaned out of houmous, grilled peppers, stuffed vine leaves and the like. Quail’s eggs and all that. (I don’t know, whatever posh people eat.)
The sun is bright and we’re sat among the castle ruins, contemplating this cathedral to English imperialism in Wales – and it’s just over the Severn Bridge, which is handy. (SIX-FORTY FOR THE BRIDGE, MIND. DISGUSTING.)
A brief kick-about with the actors features an absolutely hilarious bit of physical comedy from Dom (which, if he meant it, was absolute genius, and if he didn’t, was less clever but even funnier), some comical yet classy touches from Joe and some inept passing from everyone.
After everyone realises it’s too warm to run around, even in this half-hearted fashion, the actors go off to prepare for the show. The rest of us prepare by cracking open a cider in the sun.
Inside the castle grounds, there’s a temporary - but sturdy - stage (the kind you’d see at a community festival in a park in the city) at the bottom of a gentle slope, a kind of natural stadium seating. The actors have erected it themselves, and will deconstruct it after the show – and you thought these types were all foppish layabouts, you judgmental philistine.
The performers are out among the crowd, selling programmes and mingling, playing improvised songs and impishly picking at the laid-out food. The programme is a 25th Anniversary edition – 25 years of touring Shakespeare, first in a traditional cart, now on a full stage with lighting rig.
The company, Oddsocks, have suffered and prevailed through the rainiest summer on record, heat, cold, dark and every other problem the elements can present them with, and they’re still going.
So here it is: Shakespeare, in the traditional form: a small cast of traveling minstrels, music, audience participation, slapstick comedy, improvisation, centuries-old puns, jokes no one gets and self-referential fourth-wall breaking (at one point one character trails off from a speech and says “You didn’t get any of that, did you…? Basically, I’m happy, I’m tired, I’m goin’ for a sleep.”)
I’ve never been one for Shakespeare, really – it’s a bit like religion: if it’s forced on you as a child, it’s hard to see the value, growing up. But Oddsocks know how to do it right: it’s riotous fun. I have seen several of their productions, and can attest that even when doing ‘serious’ Shakespeare, it’s in the same style. In fact, it’s almost better to see them make a comedy of Hamlet or MacBeth than one of the plays intended as comedy.
And yet, this is the funniest I’ve seen yet: although tonight some of the topical, satirical jokes fall a little flat (there’s a reference to Michael Gove ruining education, which receives a few isolated shouts of agreement, but overall the crowd does not seem minded to shout about the evils of a Tory government), it is superb entertainment.
(Invisible! [TM Andy M] That's an in-joke you'll only get if you have seen one of these shows before, so it's the kind of thing that makes you feel like a member of an exclusive club if you get it, and left out if you don't. You're welcome/sorry.)
The cast are relaxed, but these are serious professionals: it takes discipline and hard work to get laughs, as much as a talent for improvisation helps. After a fine performance, the actors start taking apart nuts and bolts, ready to move on to the next temporary home of Shakespeare. For us, after an evening of legitimate theatre, it’s time to cross back into England and discuss the show over a late drink.