After batting around ideas of how to interpret a Shakespeare comedy through dance, the creative team at Northern Ballet were finally ruled by the age-old advice to stick with what you know.
And so its Olivier Award-nominated production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream – as Theatre Royal audiences will discover tomorrow night – is set in a ballet company.
The ambitious plan to take on the Shakespeare favourite, which has a play-within-a-play and captures a fairytale world of magic and mischief, initially gave the company’s artistic director David Nixon, his co-director Patricia Doyle and designer Duncan Hayler pause for thought.
Patricia says: “I had an original idea to set it in the court of Elizabeth I with Shakespeare in it but we weren’t sure about it.”
During discussions involving all three, she recalls: “Suddenly David said, ‘well, we could set it in a ballet company’ and we all started to get very excited.
“We talked about going on tour and I said ‘they could go to Scotland because then they could go on the Flying Scotsman’ and we were off and running’!”
The production sees the story’s madcap romantic shenanigans play out as a touring dance company spends a magical overnight journey travelling on a sleeper train from London to Edinburgh.
Emotions that ran high at the dancers’ final rehearsal spill over as they board the train and settle down for the night. Then the train enters a tunnel and the dream begins.
The “real world” parts are set in the 1940s and Patrica explains how this idea came out of discussions about war-time tours made by the likes of Royal Ballet.
“And then we suddenly thought, ‘ooh New Look’!”
This, of course, was fashion icon Christian Dior’s cutting-edge line launched post-war: a happy extravagance following years or rationing and limiting.
They also discovered that this was a time when clothing manufacturers, desperate to get their work out there again, were eager to dress ballet companies to impress.
David says: “We wanted something up-to-date enough to not seem completely ancient and once we were thinking about setting the production within a ballet company the 1940s seemed to fit, as that was when ballet was really huge in the UK.
“It was really when it started to take off.”
He says company hierarchy was important then; the sort of power dynamics that play such a part in Shakespeare’s tale in the relationship between central “real world” characters Theseus and Hippolyta.
And, adds Duncan, the post-war period was when people started to dream again and people welcomed touring theatre companies as they offered escapism to lift the spirits.
Meanwhile, women, their roles changing yet again, ditched war-time working clothes and began to dress in a more feminine way.
David says: “The choice and issue of women at work or in the home was really starting to take off and this is central to the argument between our Theseus and Hippolyta.
“Setting it in the forties also meant that the overnight train journey made sense – you wouldn’t have to take that long now!”
Indulging the imagination is something Shakespeare’s play invites us to do from the off and the Northern Ballet team were happy to take their cue.
Duncan says: “I went off into a frenzy of sketching and model-making to try out the best visual format for the show.”
The result was a huge production with a train which they soon realised would not transport easily on tour.
“The original railway carriage interior was spectacular but a bit of a beast for the technicians,” admits Duncan, so its re-design has made the set more flexible for touring.
The show has proved a huge hit with audiences but, says Patricia, this hasn’t come as a surprise.
“That’s mainly because of the detail that we had gone into when we were working on it and because we had such a strong story – it’s based on Shakespeare and that just endures. I think that really makes a difference.
“It’s also incredibly inventive and theatrical and that’s David.
“I can start with small ideas but he then opens them up to this incredible vision and fills in all the bits in between.
“We stayed really faithful to our scenario as well and having it set in the ballet company meant that the bits in the studio could be really good fun – the change in atmosphere between the dancers relaxing to when the director comes in.
“So I wasn’t really surprised at the first night audience reaction but it was great to hear them laughing at all the humour!”
* A Midsummer Night’s Dream by Northern Ballet, with a score played live by Northern Ballet Sinfonia, runs at Theatre Royal in Newcastle from tomorrow night until Saturday. Visit www.theatreroyal.co.uk or call 08448 11 21 21.