You won't see a fairy woods," Adrian Noble promises up front about his radical reinvention of A Midsummer Night's Dream , now on a North American tour that will arrive on Broadway March 20 at the Nederlander Theatre.
"I mean, there are trees and leaves, but we've taken everyday objects things you find in your apartment or on the street and we transmute them in the forest. Light bulbs become giant stars swinging in the firmament. Titania's bower is a 12-foot upturned pink umbrella, which floats gently down from the flies like a leaf. We use umbrellas a lot. And swings. And trapezes. We take modern objects and make them magical, which is what I think the play does."
Anyone who caught The Winter's Tale, which director Noble and his Royal Shakespeare Company dizzily spun at BAM in 1994, knows that he and Anthony Ward, who designs his sets and costumes, have a thousand and one exuberantly creative uses for umbrellas, swings, trapezes and balloons. In their new Dream umbrellas are the main mode of transportation. Characters float, fly and flutter in and out of sets spectacularly splashed with primary colors.
"That's an example, really, of how we work," says Noble. "We take what we think is a very simple idea, then we inject life into it something that lifts you up and takes you away, something that really catches your imagination. When people go to the theatre, they've got to see something completely different from their everyday life. I passionately believe that. It's no good seeing just a slice of life. You've got to see something that will transport you into different worlds. That's the key to what we tried to do with The Winter's Tale and what we're trying to do with this Midsummer Night's Dream."
To that Noble end, "You have to do in theatre what theatre does best. I think what we have managed to create is an extraordinarily evocative, exciting and quite modern world in which we can deliver the story of A Midsummer Night's Dream. If you go and see a Shakespeare production, it has to be ravishing. We set out to make a production that was very romantic, öery funny, very lyrical and that actually talked directly to people in the 1990's. You have to get the audience to see and hear the play for the first time that's kind of our way in. We peel things off, try to find a completely fresh way of looking at it." One of the most startling sights is the calculated image starting the show Lindsay Duncan on a swing in a feathered dress, swinging back and forth an homage to another Midsummer Night's Dream a quarter of a century ago: the historic one Peter Brook brought over and began the RSC's march to Broadway.
"Do you remember that one?" asks Noble (who'd have been 20 at the time). "Same play, same company. . . In fact, one of our actors was in that show 25 years ago. John Kane. He played Puck then. Now, he's playing Peter Quince."
As artistic director of the RSC and titular director of this production, Noble is an arresting mix of tradition-flashing and tradition-dashing. Both seem, oddly, at home in the same person. The titular one that kicks over the traces onstage is in remission in an interview situation, while the artistic one moves front and center, drumbeating and ballyhooing, in aid of the RSC.
To that end he has assembled a cast of shimmering talent. Hippolyta/Titania (Lindsay Duncan) is as good as it gets; she played New York twice as one of The Public's Obie-winning Top Girls, then on Broadway reprising to Tony-nominated effect her Olivier Award-winning performance in Les Liaisons Dangereuses. Theseus/Oberon (Alex Jennings) and Bottom (Desmond Barrit) are Olivier Award winners as well; Jennings got his in 1988 for Gloumov in Too Clever by Half, Barrit won in 1992 for Antipholus in The Comedy of Errors.
This award dropping is followed by a little resume dance, executed with more enthusiasm than most artistic directors might muster: "Alex Jennings is one of those actors who come on once in a generation and stick on everything. He's got a beautiful voice, he's intelligent, good-looking, very tall sorta like McKellen or Gielgud and he's had the most sensational season. He played this, a Peer Gynt that was lauded to the skies, an Angelo in Measure for Measure."
Similarly, "Des is just a fabulous actor, really wonderful. I think sometimes Shakespeare's clowns can be deeply unfunny, but he's a great clown. Liz McCann compares him to Zero Mostel. She says he's like that a big warm presence."
He "sells" all of this with such sincere conviction that you soon catch on that he's really talking about a couple of friends of his. Indeed, "I think it's one of the things that characterizes the Royal Shakespeare Company. I think you can tell from the stage, actually, that we have a real family atmosphere. These people have worked together for years. You get that fantastic sense of people coming and going. People go away a while, then they come back. John Kane's been in and out of the Royal Shakespeare Company since 1967 that's nearly 30 years. He has been in A Midsummer Night's Dream twice, and those two performances are like bookends, punctuating 25 years of fantastic RSC stuff here in the states. You start with Peter Brook's A Midsummer Night's Dream, then you go through Travesties, Sherlock Holmes, Piaf, Nicholas Nickleby, Good, All's Well That Ends Well, Cyrano de Bergerac and Much Ado About Nothing, Les Liaisons Dangereuses, Les Miserables, The Winter's Tale, Alan Howard's Henry V it's an extraordinary body of work."
This Dream is the first RSC expedition to reach Broadway in eight years an intermission created when the government cut back on assistance, sending the company into serious debt at the end of the 1980's. When Noble took over, he inherited a multi-million-dollar deficit. "We literally clawed our way out," he says, "and now we've paid back the deficit, and we're running in surplus. We don't make profits we're not-for-profit but we're playing to 1,250,000 people in the U.K. alone, with 13 productions in five theatres."
The past two or three years have been one of the best times for the Royal Shakespeare Company "a real kind of Renaissance," Noble calls it (not inexactly, either) and he has been highly instrumental in affecting this corporate comeback by rounding up a bunch of wonderful heavyweights and bringing them back into the RSC. Sir Derek Jacobi did Macbeth, Kenneth Branagh did Hamlet, the late Robert Stephens did Henry IV and the funds enabled the RSC to tour America again, with a little a$$i$tance stateside (from Carole Shorenstein Hays, James L. Nederlander, The John F. Kennedy
Center for the Performing Arts and Elizabeth Ireland McCann); prior to its
11-week Broadway gig, the RSC Dream is doing stints (from January 7 to March 17) in San Francisco, Chicago and
"From the Royal Shakespeare Company's point of view, it's quite a historic return for us because it has been eight years. And, after 25 years of all those visits, it's a wonderful thing to be back. I don't think anyone's going to make money touring, simply because it's a very expensive show. It does sell out, but it's a very expensive show to run. Still, I'm hoping we'll be here every year that's our aim. It's part of a major strategy I'm developing whereby I want the Royal Shakespeare Company to play in New York every year."
In point of fact, he just happens to have a production his own of The Cherry Orchard that would be ripe for transplanting over here in 1997. It's playing the Swan Theatre in Stratford-on-Avon with Alec McCowen, Penelope Wilton and David Troughton, and moving to London. "It got a fantastic reception in Stratford," even if he says so himself. There's a sheepish, almost apologetic postscript to this: "I happened to direct it. I'm promoting it as the artistic director of the RSC rather than just as the director of the play." Nobly done.