Manchester audiences don’t have to travel back in time to Ancient Greece to see live theatre in an amphitheatre. The new GOAT Mcr has opened at Great Northern square for a summer Shakespeare festival. Another young theatre company, 2mTheatre, kicks off the month-long event with condensed versions of two Shakespearean comedies. They’re excitable adaptations keen to inject fun into the family summer holiday.
The first, Bottom’s Dream, tells the story of a company of actors trying to rehearse a royal play before being unwittingly embroiled in the feuding between a fairy king and queen.
The cast move, act and appear like these sprites, some barefoot, some bare-chested, skipping over tree-stumps to hop onto the stage. This same charm translates to the handmade, rustic quality of the costumes: crowns made out of twigs, and donkey headwear out of cardboard, as though fashioned in the forest. The set seems sprinkled with a little magic and enchantment: lines of twining ivy trail above flowerpots and white backsheets adorned with ornate gold lettering.
Distilled down to an hour, however, the play is so bitesize it loses clarity. Instead of streamlining down to Bottom’s central fantastical forest frolics, as its title suggests, they attempt to cram all the plotlines, including the metaplay subplot, into its truncated runtime. It makes the momentum a little fitful, and what remains could be clearer, too. Hazel Neighbour’s operatic singing of the fairy queen’s magical instructions, for example, carries its own power and elegance but entirely muffles that of the verse.
While the second show, Twelfth Night, is a little tighter and more cogent — its marginally longer 70 minutes affording a gasp of extra breathing room — Shakespeare’s intricate plot becomes exposed. The mistaken identity premise lacks careful development, so revelations arrive abruptly. Instead, the production is structured effectively as a series of comedy sketches, largely revolving around Malvolio. At times, he channels the arch camp of Kenneth Williams, scornfully self-absorbed with trilled r’s; at others, the daftly parodic Kenny Everett, even including the criss-crossing legs of Cupid Stunt.
Although it overpowers the plot and other characters, it’s one of the most consistently engaging and entertaining performances. Others are sometimes overcranked, overcompensating for the challenge of sustaining our attention amidst the surrounding distractions and windy acoustics. Slapstick silliness, highly expressive facial expressions and flailing arms are likely for the benefit of young viewers, but are too indistinguishable from the amateur dramatics of the metaplays. Other occasions need more strength and emphasis, so Viola’s criticism of Olivia for being “too proud”, for example, lacks conviction and bite.
The pieces are stylistically low-key, but this economy necessitates finding clever imaginative touches. Umbrellas begin as protection from a storm, before being flipped, spun and bobbed to simulate a ship rolling over rising waves. They also find contemporary equivalence for Malvolio’s steward status as he becomes a punctilious Covid marshall. Our exposure to the elements also affords them extra comedy, throwing up exasperated glances at the gloomy sky when referencing “the sun” or “a summer’s day”.
The stage’s surrounding sandpit is a fitting accompaniment for the amphitheatre’s space of imagination and creation — these playful opening shows have demonstrated the great potential in this new venue.
‘Bottom’s Dream’ and ‘Twelfth Night’ played until 31 July 2021. For more information and tickets, visit The GOAT Mcr online.