Saturday 3 December 2016

Theatre: Youthful cast bring a darkness to Midsummer

Maggie Armstrong

Published 19/06/2016 | 02:30

Child's play: All the cast of A Midsummer Night's Dream are under the age of 20 - except for one.
Child's play: All the cast of A Midsummer Night's Dream are under the age of 20 - except for one.

If you want to feel really old, reminded of your lost youth and discarded dreams, see the Cork Midsummer Festival's production of A Midsummer Night's Dream.

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All the actors in the cast of 24 are kids. You will feel old, and probably decrepit, but you will see before you the nation's hopes and dreams in the shape of our youngest thespians.

Apart from Bottom (Oskar Smith), who is 12, and Theseus (Aaron O'Neill), who has reached the ripe age of 20, young teens rule this stage. The play opens on the summer solstice and runs for five shows at the Granary Theatre in Cork city - a playhouse painted a distinctive red and set slightly off the beaten track.

In April, director Tony McLeane-Fay and his company Bare Cheek put out open call. Over six casting sessions, they auditioned 125 teenagers, ending up with this hand-picked 24. Bare Cheek are veterans of youth theatre and Midsummer is a favourite for school shows, but this is the first time a professional production of Shakespeare has been performed by kids alone.

The play will give you Shakespeare at his most childlike. Four angst-ridden young lovers are drawn by different routes to "a wood near Athens", where elves, sprites, hobgoblins and a winged king and queen trick and upturn mortal society. An obvious choice for a midsummer festival, it hasn't been done in Cork since 2001, when Corca Dorca staged it in Fota Gardens.

Rehearsing at the Granary in early June, the mob of young bloods prepared for their professional debut. The 'lovers' had high-pitched Cork accents, train-tracks on their teeth and moved with the energy of pixie folk.

But childlike does not mean innocent here. The ensemble is more attuned to the evil and injustice of the play than I've seen before. From these springy black floors, a darkness rose and crept over Midsummer. A chained Queen Hippolyta (Eimear Powell) panted and grovelled on the floor, fighting the cruel will of Theseus, Duke of Athens (O'Neill). The fairies - miniature Cork girls with silky ponytails - snapped into menace and bore their teeth.

In McLeane-Fay's retelling, Midsummer is set in a post-apocalyptic future. Costumes will be hooded, Mad Max-inspired creations, video projections will show drone footage of modern Syria and footage of a refugee camp becomes the forest. Kids these days know all about suffering, McLeane-Fay believes.

"They're very worldly-wise. If I mention Syria, if I mention desolation, they get it."

Their smartphones have given them rolling news that didn't exist when we were in school. "The world is very, very small to them," the director adds.

Talking to Review, the cast were saucer-eyed and gushing with impressions, tending to dissolve into laughter and out-foxing every question they were asked. ("Do you get stage fright?" "Who doesn't?" Duh.) Shakespeare died 400 years ago so what is cool about the Bard for these kids, who have to study Hamlet at exam time? "He's versatile... he's universal.. He helps you understand relationships," come the answers.

What about A Midsummer Night's Dream? "It's got everything in it. There's love and there's hate and there's fear and there's magic," one cast member tells me.

"A lot of plays and movies, there's the same story over and over," says one girl and they all chime. "Boy meets girl, boy loves girl but fight happens, they get back together again and all live happily ever after."

Midsummer is a rom-com, they admit, centred on the problems of four lovers, but there's so much more to it.

"There's donkey's heads and love potions. It's set in this world out of reality, it allows not just the actors but the audience to invest in that, to escape into this whole world that we're creating - where anything is possible. That knows no bounds. You have to go into the play with an open mind," I am told.

Yes, adds another boy, "you have to expect the unexpected".

Today, teenagers are spoilt with magic, living through JK Rowling's books and the Game Of Thrones TV show and books. What's cool about magic? "Because we don't have it, it's so out of our reach. We're curious people. We want to know what that kind of world is like."

They will sure find out, even if 'professional theatre' is redefined here. The kids don't get paid, apart from expenses. "They get nothing materially. But what they do get is a huge opportunity and fun," says McLeane-Fay.

The father-of-three perceives a "snobbish" and "distinctly ageist" attitude to kids in theatre.

"Many look at theatre work featuring children and dismiss it out of hand, possibly equating the work with 'school shows' and the like. This doesn't seem to happen with film work, where child actors are lauded."

But working with child actors in theatre, hearing their take on ancient texts and watching them find their way into characters is "exciting", "illuminating" and "inspiring", says McLeane-Fay. What should we know when we meet kids? "That they're a lot cleverer than we think. And not to talk down to them. Please don't talk down to them, they will spot it."

The Cork Midsummer Festival runs from June 17-19, 21 and 24-26. For the full programme, see Corkmidsummer.com

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