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RSC 'Dream' comes true for amateur actors performing A Midsummer Night's Dream

Two North East am dram societies are collaborating with the Royal Shakespeare Company to stage A Midsummer Night's Dream

RSC/Topher McGrillis From the People's Theatre: Michael White (Flute), Mike Smith (Starveling), Stuart Douglas (Snout), Chris Heckels (director), Jo Kelly (Quince), Laura Halford-Macleod (assistant director) and Pete McAndrew (Bottom)
From the People's Theatre: Michael White (Flute), Mike Smith (Starveling), Stuart Douglas (Snout), Chris Heckels (director), Jo Kelly (Quince), Laura Halford-Macleod (assistant director) and Pete McAndrew (Bottom)

A pair of North East ‘Dream’ teams will mark 400 years since Shakespeare’s death, as DAVID WHETSTONE reports

A groundbreaking production of a famous play is to have 14 Bottoms with two based in the North East.

The play, of course, is Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream whose characters include a group of working men, the ‘rude mechanicals’, one of whom is Nick Bottom, a weaver.

The Royal Shakespeare Company chose the popular comedy to be A Play for the Nation in a unique project to mark the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death in 2016.

It will see 18 professional actors sharing a stage with amateurs from around the country.

The professional cast will remain the same but at each point on the tour a different group of local amateurs will play the six ‘mechanicals’.

After a rigorous selection process, casts from two North East amateur companies – the Newcastle-based People’s Theatre and the Castle Players, from Barnard Castle, County Durham – have been chosen to take part, along with 12 others around the country.

The chosen groups of amateurs will now work towards a national tour next year.

It will begin in February at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon and then visit Northern Stage, in Newcastle, from March 16-26 before heading off to 10 other cities.

The Newcastle run will be the longest outside Stratford because Northern Stage will host performances featuring both North East amateur groups.

The tour will end where it began, in Stratford, where all the amateur groups will get to perform from June 15 to July 16.

The whole process is to be filmed by the BBC for a programme provisionally called The Best Bottoms in the Land, due to be shown on BBC One in the spring.

Local schoolchildren in each area will also be recruited to take part as Titania’s fairy train.

Titania is the Queen of the Fairies who, under a magic spell, falls in love with Bottom who, by the same magic, has acquired a donkey’s head.

Erica Whyman, formerly boss of Northern Stage but now the RSC’s deputy artistic director, is directing A Midsummer Night’s Dream: A Play for the Nation and will be travelling back to the North East to work with both sets of amateurs.

She described the process of casting amateur actors from around the country as “inspiring and humbling”.

“I have met so many wonderful people – talented, dedicated and brave,” she said.

“The standard has been tremendous and the wonderful diversity of men and women who will be taking on these major roles is very exciting – and, perhaps more importantly, they have really made us laugh.

“In every single region the cast we have chosen has a distinctive voice and a strong sense of connection to the place where they will perform.

“I think it will be a real treat for audiences everywhere to see Shakespeare’s most magical play with a properly local flavour.”

Of the actors from the People’s Theatre, Erica said: “This group had an impressive command of the text that made them stand out.”

Of the Castle Players she singled out Peter Cockerill, saying he “found something very special and courageous in Bottom”.

For the People’s Theatre, Bottom will be played by Pete McAndrew, Flute by Michael ‘Reg’ White, Quince by Jo Kelly, Starveling by Mike Smith, Snout by Stuart Douglas and Snug by Gordon Russell.

Also performing for the Castle Players will be Andrew Stainthorpe (Flute), Harry French (Quince), Ian Kirkbride (Starveling), Ben Pearson (Snout) and Graham Fewell (Snug).

The Newcastle amateurs have been rehearsing at the People’s Theatre under their own director, Chris Heckels, and assistant director Laura Halford-Macleod.

The Barnard Castle group will rehearse at the town’s Witham Arts Centre under director Jill Cole.

Chris Heckels said eight North East groups applied to take part in the project but the numbers had been whittled down over a series of audition weekends when they had all benefited from RSC voice, text and movement workshops.

“Even for the groups that didn’t get selected in the end it has been a great experience,” said Chris who has directed many plays for the People’s Theatre.

She said she had never directed a full-length version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream but had directed many pared down versions while working for the Shakespeare Schools Festival.

Chris, a former drama teacher whose past pupils include many North East actors and the playwright Lee Hall, said she had conducted her own auditions before Christmas.

“I decided that I’d be gender neutral and just pick the best actors who would make the best team,” she said. “And they had to be funny.”

She said the project would also mark the 105th year of the People’s continually producing theatre in Newcastle.


David Whetstone
Culture Editor
Graeme Whitfield
Business Editor
Mark Douglas
Newcastle United Editor
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