Tweedy the Clown as Bottom with Natalie Winsor as Titania

A Midsummer Night's Dream

Coventry Belgrade


A Midsummer Night's Dream is a funny play. Often hilarious. But this zany version was right off the scale of dottiness.

Indeed 'zany' is one of those many epithets one can apply to that national treasure, Tweedy the Clown. The Cheltenham Everyman Theatre is one of Tweedy's favourite haunts, and it was a glorious idea to infiltrate Tweedy into its latest Shakespeare show. Possibly, despite TV comics, the funniest man in England at present.

Yet the marvellous thing at the Belgrade - it arrived from the Everyman via Malvern, York and Southampton - was that the whole cast's antics sent ripples and ropples and roopples down the spine. Not just the crazy play the rustics perform ('Very Tragicall Mirth') had the audience in stitches. So did the hamfisted business of four lovers getting their conkers in a twist as well.

One major feature of Paul Milton's delicious staging, so wittily conceived, was that he opted to make virtually the whole cast act as if they were all part of a shambolic rustics' play. Professional to the bone, they acted like glorious hams. Impossible to take loopy Lysander seriously any more than flouncy Flute or bumptious Bottom. All worked out to perfection, yet managed to make it look about to creak and collapse at any moment. A splendid concept: it was difficult to work out where the next nifty paradox would issue from.

The other collective feature in Milton's bizarre whirligig of a production - 'Magic, Mischief and Mayhem', as they put it, and there were loads of all three - was that all the actors - except Tweedy's Bottom (who anyway transmutes into a donkey) were double-, or - given their insane parts in the play within a play - triple-, cast. (Maybe more: the four lovers played Oberon's fairies too, in wonderful costumes.)


So the fussy Peter Quince (Nadia Shah) turns - lo and behold - into a charming, comely Hermia. Lysander is transfigured into Robin Starveling the Moon; and most adroitly of all, Jeremy Stockwell - himself a Director and an immensely seasoned drama teacher (RADA, the BBC, and abroad) - really did manage quadruple: Egeus (Hermia's crabby old father); Snug the Joiner; alias a whimpering Lion; and one of the most elderly, athletic, amusingly meek as well as mischievous (incompetent) Pucks I can remember: "I go, I go, look how I go, Swifter than arrow from the Tartar’s bow". And how he zooms.

Even the court scenes had more flavour than usual. This was not least because Troy Alexander - lofty and distinguished, to say the least - played both Theseus and Oberon (a double casting not uncommon); while Natalie Winsor's initially placid Hippolyta bounced into life as a feisty, domineering then duped Titania.

The striking Theseus became the manipulative master of magic, Oberon; the deferential courtiers courted, or didn't, then turned the forest into a riot of misunderstandings. Alexander's fine diction helped immensely: Theseus's commanding "Awake the pert and nimble spirit of mirth. Turn melancholy forth to funerals; The pale companion is not for our pomp "set against Oberon's insights: tellingly," When they next wake, all this derision / Shall seem a dream, and fruitless vision".

Thomas Nelstrop's Demetrius is meant to be the stiff one; and stiff he was, until he yielded a laugh-a-minute hole- (chink) - between-the-legs Wall, who sets the rustics' Thespian not-quite-masterpiece under way, and delivered one of the funniest, crab-like exits of all. Oliver Brooks ' enticingly fey demeanour somehow roused a giggle with every appearance, whether dopy or flustered, furious or incompetent, as a gangly star-crossed lover or hapless Moon, complete with barking dog and mini-lantern, his every move and his exchange with Theseus models of lunacy.

When Laura Noble (Helena) strode on, a deliciously assertive Flute, one wondered: surely Thisbe (Pyramus's inamorata) can't be played by a woman? I couldn't have been more wrong. Armed with a spectacularly funny (and original) galumphing 'masculine' walk, she made a just perfect chap-playing a girl, not just girl-playing-a-chap-playing-a-girl. Thisbe's final 'dying' scene is always a hoot. Not always as much a hoot, or as brilliantly inventive, as this was.

The major prop was a fabulous bed, rolled on rearstage and out, a sumptuous lilac and pink for Titania's bedbound tryst with Bottom. In Greek theatre (this was Athens, remember) they had a similar device, called an 'eccucclema' (roll-out), and this served much the same purpose. Simple, it looked great. A big pat on the back for Charles Cusick Smith and Phil R Daniels, to whom together we owed each aspect of this deliberately ramshackle yet sparkling design: the look of the whole thing.


Rich in ideas. Their dominating achievement was a backdrop that fused Athenian pillars with a cleverly intertwined wood: a splendid idea, which generated a perfect atmosphere. The costumes seemed both bizarre and almost realistic. Renaissance Italian, perhaps. A clever mix. And the music a delicious medley, too - several touches from solo clarinet being both haunting and utterly beautiful.

But of course, thanks to thoughtful structuring without stealing the show, this was Tweedy's field day. His repertoire of walks (not all silly), stumbles, twiddlings, twistings, trippings, leapings, jugglings (horse dung at the end!), dancings, foolings, bunglings, is as no one else's. Bizarre costume, witty multicoloured hairstyle. And another Athenian word: paraprosdokian. Wholly unpredictable. You could never be sure what tumble, slump, swoon, faint or flop would come next. Like a naughty child, he kept you guessing. And his moves, his bumps, his very clowning, are incredibly subtle, because perfectly devised, perfectly timed, perfectly exercised. Such staggering skill. Artistry. Fantastic. A privilege to watch.

And how cleverly it all enchanted and enticed. The children in the audience - there were lots, and incredibly well behaved; that was how bewitched they were - cottoned on to and loved the entire play: not just the giggles: the whole weird farrago. Marvellous.

Particularly successful was the way Milton used the wondrous, award-winning Tweedy (Alan Digweed - he nearly became 'Weedy the Clown') as a form of interlude, or intermezzo. Thus we were treated to his phenomenal range of seemingly impossible antics in intermediary bursts which lifted the spirits every time. When he becomes a donkey it is for the fairies - and Titania - to canoodle him. But when he is abandoned and unepectedly cries "a horse, a horse..." (!) and a huge four-legged soft toy hurtles on to him from sidestage - well, you get the idea.

Only recently Tweedy starred in the Everyman's production (Milton again directing) of Waiting for Godot: he played the assertive Estragon (interesting, as Tweedy's voice as Bottom and Pyramus in the Dream proved strikingly tender and gentle - what one might call tenor register, and especially touching). And his fellow tramp - great casting - was no less than Jeremy Stockwell - our Puck. That must have been an astonishing display: not one but two ingenious, transformative comics.

Certainly when he loopily breaks onstage as a ludicrous Roman Soldier, with ballooning Jacobean trews and an outsize sword, streamers of blood (plus pants), his every move - twitch - was side-splitting. "I kiss the Wall's hole, not thy lips at all." And about two dozen "die, die, die"s.

So this Midsummer Night's Dream was indeed a treat a minute. A bundle of belly-laughs. Jam-packed with goodies. But it was also, somehow, a gloriously serious piece of theatre. We embraced it all, and with every line, at every second, it hugged us. Brilliant.

Roderic Dunnett


Index page Belgrade Reviews A-Z Reviews by Theatre