Theatre in Bristol: Don't miss A Midsummer Night's Dream from Bristol Old Vic's artistic director Tom Morris at the Old Vic
The last time Tom Morris, Bristol Old Vic's inspirational artistic director, collaborated with South African puppet theatre company Handspring, the result was an inspirational, emotional and award-winning piece of theatre. War Horse, the adaptation of Michael Morpurgo's children's story, was co-directed by Morris and featured Handspring's life-size horse puppets: and the show garnered huge praise, sellout performances and a Tony Theatrical Award during its runs in London and on Broadway.
Couple Morris' impressive theatrical imagination with Handspring's bewitching skills in the art of object manipulation, and something special tends to result.
So hopes are high for the next collaboration between the two: A Midsummer Night's Dream, Shakespeare's much-loved woodland comedy of fairies, sprites, sexual mismatches and oafish Rude Mechanicals, which opens at Bristol Old Vic at the end of this month.
"I've followed and occasionally been lucky enough to work with Handspring for nearly 20 years," Morris reveals. "They are the greatest puppet company in the world and it is a huge thrill to be able to invite them to Bristol to collaborate with us on this experimental version of Shakespeare's sexiest and most magical comedy."
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What's so special about Handspring is their sheer skill with puppetry and object manipulation, and their belief that anything is possible therein. Indeed, Handspring's Adrian Kohler and Basil Jones sum up their ethos of puppetry with the phrase "everything has the right to life" – inanimate objects included. It's an ethos that seems ideally suited to A Midsummer Night's Dream, that most magical comedy that leads us into a strange wood where magic and fairies hold sway, characters acquire new identities and nothing is quite as it seems.
"Anything and everything can come to life in our production, and invariably does," reveals Miltos Yerolemou, a London-based actor trained in physical theatre who's playing Bottom. Yes, that's right, Bottom: that bawdy, wine and song- loving carpenter and member of the Rude Mechanicals, a troupe of skilled labourers and hammy am-drammers hoping to make their name by performing in front of Theseus, Duke of Athens, and his betrothed Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons.
"The puppetry gives a different emphasis to the whole idea of magic in the play," Miltos continues. "Everyone knows that the play has magic in it, but the magic we present is a little different. It's more of a surprise – you don't know quite what might come to life next."
As Miltos explains, the cast and crew have been inspired, in the creation of their world, by Russell Hoban's science-fiction novel Riddley Walker, set in a future world after nuclear devastation.
"That novel explores how, when civilisation has stopped working, we might go back to old, almost pagan superstitions and rituals," Miltos explains. "And it gives you an idea of what life might be like in a place where everything has to be recycled, scavenged and re-used. That's the world we have recreated – where wooden effigies come to life and where the Mechanicals' tools are being used in very different ways.
"The forest itself comes alive. The design of the production keeps surprising you: on the surface it's quite simple, but in fact it's constantly changing. We're creating a world full of magic and spells.
"A Midsummer Night's Dream is all about transformation, and that's what Handspring do – they transform what you see, changing objects into living creatures, but they also transform your perceptions as an audience."
Tell us about your, um, Bottom, Miltos. After all, he's a character rich in folklore and with a love of bawdy humour. "I'm retracing my Greek roots! My Bottom is a proper Athenian, a real earthy Greek: big-hearted, expansive, emotional, full of himself, with a real passion for what he does. And he has a thick Greek accent. I'm basically channelling my father."
Rehearsals are proceeding fruitfully, says Miltos. "Tom is a brilliant director. He creates an environment where you feel free to play and experiment. And you do really good work when you feel that freedom, when you don't need to feel afraid of making yourself look like an idiot. When you see my Bottom, you'll understand what I mean..."