It was 4.30. We were not pleased. The rain – no, the downpour – had started, and was battering at the windows. That evening we had tickets for an outdoor performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream at nearby Ripley Castle. The idea was to get there early, with all the rest of the audience, picnic in the grounds of the castle and then stroll from scene to scene in the woodlands as the play’s plot unfolded and night descended. By 5.00 this seemed an unlikely possibility.
On the net, we found a single forecast that suggested the rain might blow away, leaving a clear evening. We decided to believe it.
By 6.30, we’d got to Ripley, joined our friends, and the sun was shining. By 7.00, the sun was still shining, our picnic was spread out, and the lawns were crowded with a waiting public enjoying an early supper. And at 7.30, costumed figures started to roam the grounds, some beating noisy rhythms on a whole variety of instruments.
What an evening. This Midsummer Night’s Dream sets the standard by which I’ll judge all others. We spent the evening eavesdropping on the fairies who inhabited the woods we wandered through, watching enraptured as they manipulated the lives of the four lovers – or would-be lovers – Hermia, Lysander, Helena and Demetrius, involving as they did so Bottom, one of a company of ‘rude mechanicals’ – tradesmen – who are rehearsing a play which they hope to perform at the wedding of yet another noble pair, Theseus and Hippolyta.
I can’t now imagine the play in any other setting. The woods provide an eerie, threatening backdrop for lovers fleeing from planned marriages they don’t want, or would-be lovers they don’t love. The ancient and characterful trees of the forest are, on the other hand, also home to the King and Queen of the fairies, Oberon and Titania, and their ‘knavish sprite’ Puck. Here, disappearing into the hiding places the forest provides, hanging from branches, concealed by leaves, Oberon and Puck watch their plot unfold with all its unintended consequences, as pools of coloured light illuminate their very own version of fairyland .
Surrounded by so much space, the characters can give true vent to their feelings. Brawling Helena and Hermia scratch and claw, get grass in their hair and mud on their dresses, whilst the men pursue each other wielding sticks and branches, tumbling in leaves and soil. The ‘rude mechanicals’ are in danger of stealing the show as they rehearse in the forest, particularly the arch-clown Bottom. Puck though, is the real fairy. She truly makes the woods her home, cackling from high branches, drumming wildly on a succession of instruments which even include tin plant pots and a bath, energetically making gleeful mischief wherever she lands.
And we, the audience, are cheerfully cajoled from place to place, lugging our blankets and picnic chairs, lured by the frenetically drumming, calling and singing company : from fine lawns in a walled garden fit for nobility, to welcoming woodland glades, to threatening forest – onwards, onwards, see the plot unfold!
I’m only sorry not to have seen one of these wonderful Sprite productions before. Every year they take over Ripley Castle grounds for several weeks to offer us their production of a Shakespeare play. Rarely has the Bard seemed so accessible, so rumbustuous, so much fun. And after this year, the company’s taking a year out, to re-group and consider the always knotty problem of funding. Please, Sprite, let it only be a year. We’ve only just found you.
Understandably, photography wasn’t permitted during the show. These then, are a few ‘before’ and ‘after’ shots.