Anyone driving through Warwickshire will be welcomed into the county with a sign proclaiming entrance into “Shakespeare’s County”.
This always gives me a wry smile, partly because I know we’re nearing home and partly because – where we live – evidence of the great bard’s influence on the lives of people in Warwickshire is pretty thin on the ground … all this Shakespeare is just for the tourists.
Well, I eat my words.
Strolling through Avonbank gardens near Holy Trinity Church in Stratford-upon-Avon on Sunday we came across an outdoor performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
Our knowledge of the play is sketchy (it’s an Elizabethan RomCom, set in Athens with loads of mix-ups, mishaps and mischief getting in the way of true love). Missing the first half the performance, did not help as it’s quite hard to pick up exactly what’s going on.
Even so, it didn’t really matter. The quality of the performance cast its spell. It really was quite inspiring.
The play was performed by the Merely Theatre company, a bunch of young actors whose dynamism, energy and enthusiasm produces a really high tempo show.
With no set, no costumes and very few props (apart from a water pistol and an umbrella used as a sword), they entertained a mixed crowd of families, tourists and passers-by, with a few Shakespeare fans thrown in.
There were only five actors. Four men and one woman. This, I thought, was strange until I read the programme.
Merely are a genderblind company. There are five women and five men in the company. Each production is devised for five actors. One women and one man rehearse each part. Who goes out to perform the play is then selected at random.
The outcome is a fresh mix of actors for each performance. Who plays what part is dictated by chance alone. Men end up playing women and women end up playing men.
At first I could not quite get the hang of this genderblind idea.
Then the penny dropped.
It’s all about stripping back Shakespeare to let the words and characters stand for themselves without the sex or the physical looks of the actors colouring the audiences judgement.
It’s Shakespeare uncut, if you like.
And before you go all Daily Mail and denounce the Arts Council England for funding Merely for subverting Shakespeare with PC nonsense, it’s worth remembering that the genderblind idea has its genesis in Elizabethan theatre.
In Shakespeare’s time all parts were played by men, so mixing up the sexes is just a modern extension of that theatrical tradition.
Anyway, the end result is great. You do get the sense that the actors are totally committed to each performance and to bringing Shakespeare to life for modern audiences.
Merely, are on tour throughout the summer. I don’t think all the performances are free, but are definitely worth seeing.
If you live near Stratford there’s a programme of free Shakespeare. See below.
Ps. I know I said there were ten members of the company. There are eleven now. During the performance the cast handed out numbered lines to the audience. I ended up with two (mainly due to my family being a bit on the shy side).
I was a bit reserved with my first line, but with the second I really stole the show… how could they possibly perform without me!