Tom Morris’s new production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream marks his first collaboration with Handspring puppet company since War Horse. Eleanor Turney caught up with Akiya Henry (Hermia) and Alex Felton (Lysander) to find out what audiences can expect from the show.
Think of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and what comes to mind? Fairies, love and happy endings, probably. It is one of the less ambiguous of Shakespeare’s comedies, and potentially one of the filthiest. Actors Akiya Henry and Alex Felton, tell me that this production is going to be “a magical, sexual joyride, with puppets”. Henry is clear that Dream is described as “a sexually charged comedy”, which explains its 12+ recommendation. Felton tells me that it was “great to dig up the filthy stuff, it makes it immediate – everyone can relate to love and sex”. That’s not to say that Henry and Felton don’t see the more serious side to the play, too. Felton continues: “This stuff is part of why it’s so popular – it touches on such eloquent stuff about love as well as the silly stuff”. Henry concurs: “It’s a magical adventure that really focuses on the relationship of the human condition and love”.
I speak to the two actors in their lunch break in the last week of rehearsals before A Midsummer Night’s Dream opens, and it sounds as though they are having a wonderful time. “Tom [Morris, Artistic Director of Bristol Old Vic] allows us to just create things,” continues Henry. “He makes a very safe place to play – the creative team is very brave and fearless, and makes you try things you’d never normally consider. He lets you jump in at the deep end. It’s like coming in every day to an adventure playground.” They may be having fun now, but Henry and Felton both stress that learning to work with puppets has been a steep learning curve. “It was,” says Henry, “entirely new! Thank goodness we had a really invaluable week solely on the puppetry – the guys working with us, from Handspring, have dedicated their whole lives to this and have so much expertise to pass on – we’re trying to learn enough of a thing that takes a lifetime to master to do their puppets justice on stage.” Felton describes it as “a crazy, lovely journey to discover your relationship to the puppet and to animate it, and to see how it connects to the audience or to another actor”.
Both actors namecheck Little Angel’s A Very Old Man With Enormous Wings as showing them what can be done with puppets. “to see [the show] in action was a huge learning curve – it’s such a humble way of storytelling; you put yourself into something else purely to tell the story,” says Felton. Henry agrees: “One of the lessons you learn is just basic trust – as an actor you come into the rehearsal room and you have to trust the director and your fellow actors, that’s a given. To then have to really think about trusting this object, too… you look at it and it looks like a piece of wood, and you have to make it come to life and the only way that happens is if you really believe it. A Very Old Man highlighted how much you have to invest and trust in it.”
It helps, of course, that this is not Director Tom Morris’s first collaboration with Handspring: he directed War Horse at the National Theatre, which has since gone on to storm the West End and Broadway. However, both actors are keen to point out that Morris’s approach as a director is to start from scratch every time. “The great thing about working with Tom is that everything he works on, even a revival, he starts as if it’s a brand new piece. He sees it as a new piece, new people, new projects, so there is no pressure to compare to a previous production,” says Henry. She is full of praise for how Morris works, too: “He really works had to make sure that everyone has a brilliant experience. What’s been really lovely in the rehearsal room is that he has a way of making you feel like it’s a complete collaboration – he uses the word ‘ensemble’ a lot and makes everyone feel part of putting the show together. You can really tell when you see a show that everyone is connected, everyone is important.” Felton is equally enthusiastic: “He’s a dream. We all adore him. He’s very nurturing. God knows how, but he’s got this production out of us without us really noticing! It never felt like an effort, really, which takes a huge amount of skill from the director.”
Both actors seems very at home in Bristol, too. Bristol Old Vic is very much a theatre on the up at the moment, re-establishing itself firmly on the theatre scene after its refurb and a rocky few years, before Morris and Executive Director Emma Stenning took the helm. Felton has preformed all over the country recently, and says “Bristol has been my favourite city. It’s got such a buzz, a bit like Berlin, like Britain’s Berlin. There is such a creative vibe, so many creative people and artists.” Henry, who is an associate artists of BOV, describes the city as “a place that nurtures new talent, that allows you to adventure into the unknown. Bristol, like Germany and some other European places, has a fearlessness in the presentation of storytelling. Working here, you just feel like you’re at home. It’s a joyous place to be.”
As a fairly new resident of this part of the world, I have to agree: Bristol is a city with more creative things going on that you would think possible in a city of 500,000 people. Both actors refer to its “buzz”, and Bristol Old Vic with its imaginative programme of work plays a large part in creating and sustaining that vibe. A Midsummer Night’s Dream sounds like another reason to keep Bristol firmly on the cultural map. Leave your under-12s behind and get your tickets.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream will be at Bristol Old Vic from 28 February until 4 May. For more information and tickets visit the BOV’s website.