A Midsummer Night's Dream, on tour

(Sally Beauman, who travelled with the company in Europe and the United States, edits and writes this Flourish, reporting on some of the difficulties and reactions the company faced.)

A Girdle Round About The Earth

Gabi saw the Peter Brook production of A Midsummer Night's Dream in Budapest last autumn. The tickets were very expensive and, in any case, impossible to obtain. Those that hadn't previously been allocated to Party officials, theatre workers and Ministry high-ups had been sold out long before. Gabi wanted to see the play so much that she travelled up from the country to Budapest, and pushing her way through the throngs of people at the ticket office, managed to charm one of the ticket collectors into finding her a standing place; she got it in return for two packets of Romanc cigarettes, and was squeezed into a place at the front of the stalls. She had no seat, but propped herself up on Milos Jansco, the film director, who hadn't been able to get a seat either. Afterwards, she wrote to a friend about it: "The performance was something out of this world. When it was over the whole audience jumped to their feet and clapped, standing, for half an hour. Not one single person rushed out to get their coats from the cloakroom. I am quite serious, half the audience was in tears........ I don't know what it means to see a performance of this kind in Britain, but here it is as if one had achieved the impossible. People look at you, point at you, and say: 'He was there. He saw the Royal Shakespeare Company'....."

 'swing time'

The world tour of A Midsummer Night's Dream, which started in England last August, is now on its final three month stint. When it finishes, this coming August, the company will have played for a year in thirteen different countries, and over 30 different cities. When Gabi saw it in Hungary in October, it had already played in London, Bristol, Southampton, Berlin, Munich, Paris, Venice, Belgrade, Milan and Hamburg. It was going on to Bucharest, Sofia in Bulgaria, Zagreb, Cologne, Helsinki, Warsaw, Cardiff, Liverpool, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Washington D.C. For the last three months of the tour it will go to Tokyo, Nagoya, Osaka, Kobe, Adelaide, Melbourne and Sydney. There is still a remote possibility, for the circuitous negotiations continue, that it may finish up in Peking. But whether or not it makes it to China - it would be the first theatre company from the West ever to do so - the tour has still been an extraordinary one; the longest tour of any one production ever mounted by the RSC, and the first attempt to send one play into the lion's den of so many different cultures.

It all started last July, in hot humid weather in Paris, with - appropriately enough, Midsummer's Day falling in the middle of rehearsals. Peter Brook gathered the new Dream company together at the Mobilier National - a vast cold echoing building on the left bank, where Brook works with his experimental theatre company. Some members of the company had been in the original production, though for the most part they were now playing different parts: Alan Howard was still playing Theseus/Oberon; Philip Locke was still playing Egeus/Quince, Terence Taplin was still

"After I came out all I could think was, God, why didn't I become an actor? It must be such fun on the trapezes." British Ambassador to Germany.

playing Lysander. Barry Stanton was now playing Bottom (he used to play Snug) and Hugh Keays Byrne was noe playing Snug (he used to be the most hirsute of the fairies). But the rest of the cast was new: Gemma Jones taking over as Hippolyta/Titania, Robert Lloyd as Puck, Jennie Stoller as Helena, Zhivila Roche as Hermia, Richard Moore as Starveling, Malcolm Rennie as Snout, George Sweeney as Flute...... it was a company of people who weren't used to working with each other, and who came from widely differing theatrical disciplines, who had five weeks to recreate a production that had - rather dauntingly - been lavished with more superlatives by critics, here and in New York, than any production since the Brook/Scofield King Lear.

"But what we were trying to do", said Brook, "was not in any sense to produce a carbon copy of the original. That wouldn't have been possible, and anyway no one wanted to do it. Rather we wanted, within the framework of the original production, within the shape that the play physically had, to explore it again, through the responses of a very different set of people".

There were an awful lot of practical things that could go wrong, and most of them did. People got ill: during rehearsals Terry Taplin broke both ankles and was in a wheelchair - out of the production until America; Jennie Stoller broke her toe; Hugh Keays Byrne broke his thumb (twice); Barry Stanton lost his voice; in Cardiff five people got 'flu. In Eastern Europe the lorries carrying the set broke down; practically everywhere there were union difficulties of one sort or

"The trouble with touring is that everyone in England forgets you exist. Here I am in all these marvellous places, but as far as my friends are concerned, for a year I'm out in the sticks". Gemma Jones.

another with local theatre workers. Firemen were officious (in Paris they sprayed Titania's red feather with fire proofing liquid that made it moult). Foreign theatres created their own problems: some had appalling sight lines (though in San Francisco, where the gallery on stage was invisible from the top balcony, it didn't prevent the top balcony seats from being sold out). In Washington D.C., with humid 80 degree heat outside, the theatre was like an oven; but it turned out no one at the brand-new multi-million dollar Kennedy centre had the authority to turn on the highly sophisticated air-conditioning system; for that permission had to be obtained from the Bureau of Parks. Problems were created simply by the stresses of constant travel: where do you find the energy to run up and down ladders, and swing from trapezes when you've just moved, after a tiring flight, to the second new hotel of the week, the second new country, the second new theatre? And when you know that after three nights you'll be moving on to another one?

How do you find the energy to get up and go to a Press conference in the morning, facing a battery of cameras, and questions put through an interpreter, when the night before you were at an embassy reception drinking the Ambassador's excellent champagne? How, as Hugh Keays Byrne put it, do you face another woman at another reception, who says to you (with some earnestness) "Now tell me, how do you manage to learn your lines?" Or the American lady who came up to Alan Howard at a party in Pasadena, all smiles and much Indian jewellery: "Now you must advise me, Mr. Howard. I have four children and they all want to go on the stage?"

"It's a problem of feedback. You need response desperately - what are they feeling out there? - but you can also have too much. To go to a reception and answer questions about the play you've just performed, sometimes it's good, other times you just want to clam up. You get exhilarated and you get drained: I still don't know quite how you balance out the two, you just do". Alan Howard.

The answer, of course, lies partly in the play itself, and the extraordinary resilience of the production, which has managed to go on changing and developing. "It hits high spots", as Gemma Jones puts it, "and ssometimes it drops off badly, but so far we've always managed to pull it back together again" - and partly in the responses of the audiences which have been - particularly in Eastern Europe - consistently responsive and warm.

Only in one place in Europe - Paris - was there any system of simulataneous translation for audiences. In Germany, particularly in Hamburg, where the company felt it gave the best performances, it was clear that the audiences understood English fluently (they laughed at quite obscure puns one would forgive an English audience for missing).

"How do you catch the plates - is it magnetic?" - Students at Los Angeles (or everyone everywhere!)

In Venice, where the company played at the exquisite Fenice theatre, the audiences arrived late (sometimes performances didn't begin until 9 pm) and were noticeably slower to warm up. In Eastern Europe, even in places like Bulgaria, where no English company has performed for 35 years, and where certainly, however well they knew the play, large sections of the audience didn't speak English, the response was quite extraordinary. Gabi was writing about seeing the play in Budapest, but what she wrote applied equally well to Bucharest, Belgrade, Sofia, or Warsaw. In Bucharest, students who couldn't get tickets for the performance, were smuggled in theough the dressing rooms to watch the play from the wings. In Sofia, where, as usual, there was not a seat to be obtained for any performances, students were packed in, sitting and kneeling and standing in the elaborate wooden structure that theatre had behind the proscenium arch, so the company were playing to an audience out front, and an audience above their heads, most of whom could hardly see the actors, but who never shuffled or stretched for three and a half hours. At the end of these performances the audiences went wild: they stood up, they threw carnations onto the stage, they built up the applause into a rhythmic slow hand-clap (a mark of approval in Eastern Europe) which would sometimes go on for as long as half an hour, with the company joining in, clapping and stamping their feet in time with the audience.

One of the companies major worries was what would happen to the play, after the stimulus of

"It's a year out of your life. When you start you have no idea what that means, travelling with the same people, living in each others pockets, moving from hotel to hotel. It places enormous strains upon people, even strains on the play. I get through by living from day to day. I don't let myself think about how much longer we've got to go." Hugh Keays Byrne, In Eastern Europe, a third of the way through.

travelling, and playing constantly in different countries, when they opened in America for a six-week run in Los Angeles. And certainly the atmosphere there was very different. The Ahmanson Theatre, in the recently built Music Center in downtown LA, is a daunting place, a great white temple of culture, where the audiences all arrive by car, where there are no surrounding restaurants or bars to give a feeling of humanity to the place. The first-night audience were swathed in furs; very Hollywood. "Don't mind them, dears", said the rather camp chief dresser , who'd worked there for several years. "They're Hollywood. They always sit on their hands". And to some extent they did. Although the production broke box office records - no mean feat in a theatre that sits 2,100 people, over a six-week run - the audience response was certainly

"I love touring. I like arriving in a new theatre and explaining the set-up to foreign technicians through an interpreter who doesn't know any of the technical terms. I'm the scapegoat, the father confessor, the school master, the analyst: that's OK. It keeps me on my toes". Hal Rogers, Tour Manager.

slower and less warm than in Europe; half way through the last act the early exodus for the car park would start. But still the response, from students in particular, was amazing: one group from the University of Santa Barbara made the journey of over 100 miles twice to see it in LA and then,

"I've got my family with me, and that keeps me going. There's two constants - them and the play. If they weren't there I don't know what I'd do. The play would still be the stable thing, but the rest of the days, in a foreign place, would be very empty". George Sweeney, who travelled with his wife and two small children.

when the production moved north to San Francisco, made the even longer journey there to see it again.

Critical response to the play varied enormously. In America the reviews were almost uniformly good and almost uniformly dull. "I'd prefer", said Barry Stanton, "to have someone who took the trouble to knock the production really hard. I wouldn't mind, so long as I felt that they'd been sitting out there and they'd experienced something of their own. I don't mind someone hating it - in fact it can be helpful, provided they can explain why they felt the way they did". The most anti review came from Stanley Eichelbaum of the San Francisco Examiner. After some prosy ramblings - "the production is quite exciting".....three actors do approach the play like professionals - he concluded. "Brook's highly praised production doesn't live up to its reputation.....almost none of the activity on stage relates to Shakespeare's play".....but he never explained why. In Europe the reviews were far less tepid, and far more literate: at least critics there were prepared to go out on a limb. In Rumania they took exception to the play's bawdiness: "Peter Brook's show is not only erotic, it is, without reason, licentious and sometimes even pornographic", wrote one critic. "We find scenes on the brink of vulgarity, licentiousness and even obscenity", wrote another, which delighted Peter Brook. But for the most part the reaction was one of exhilaration and stimulus: "Brook's production", wrote a critic in Budapest, "is not just the topmost peak of contemporary theatre, it offers a glimpse of tomorrow's stage art". "You who have a ticket", wrote a critic in Helsinki, "you don't know how lucky you are. If you are unable to use it, for God's sake don't throw it away, but give it to someone who has perhaps lost faith in the theatre".

The 1972/73 World Tour: 31 cities, 307 performances, seen by approximately 450,000 people.

Sally Beauman

Flourish, the RSC Magazine, 22.5.73.


Playing Shakespeare/Dream