Shook Up Shakespeare’s Midsummer Madness brings something a little bit different to this year’s commemorations marking 400 years since Shakespeare’s death. With party games, a rap and an abundance of audience participation, Midsummer Madness is an hour of light-hearted playfulness that touches on elements of the Bard’s work, in a style arguably more suitable for a school audience than adult theatre goers.
Party hats on, we’re showered with sweets and addressed like a group of primary school children before the play has even begun. The gags fly and before we know it, we’re being directed to pass a bowl of sweets amongst us in a game of pass the parcel whereby he or she who has the bowl when the music stops must pick a numbered ball, and a member of the five-strong cast will perform the Shakespearean sonnet that correlates to that number. The fun twist here is that a second bowl is also roaming the audience, with balls dictating the style in which each sonnet must be performed – Google Translate and stage fright being two notably funny examples.
Party games feature heavily throughout Midsummer Madness: we’re divided into team Helena and team Hermia, and encouraged to cheer for our representative like a studio audience, whilst in another moment the cast play at guessing an audience member’s favourite Shakespeare play. One particularly timely game called ‘Star Cross Lovers’ (think ITV’s Love Island with a Shakespearean twist) involves an audience member choosing which Shakespearean character – Beatrice, Adriana, Olivia or Portia – he’d like to date based on a love-themed monologue they recite from each of their respective texts. Shook Up Shakespeare are clearly keen to make Shakespeare accessible to a modern audience, however in doing so, the tomfoolery and egos of their characters detract from the substance of the Bard’s work at times.
Regardless of their minimal budget, Shook Up Shakespeare’s set and costume design is simple but aesthetically pleasing, with each cast member wearing a different coloured t-shirt correlating to the colour of their stool, Converse trainers and nail polish. The scattering of fairy lights and dripping green ribbon dangling from the studio walls suit the nature of the piece, as does the presentation of the cast list in a candy-coloured paper bag.
Helen Watkinson’s writing and direction is strong, with the rap-like poem about Shakespeare’s plays – performed with gusto by Genevieve Berkeley-Steele – being the piece’s literary highlight. Madelyn Smedley tickles us with her ode to Batman’s Robin, but all five performers bring a slightly different energy to the stage along with the ability to sing in genuinely beautiful harmonies. Watkinson’s decision to reference empowering Shakespearean speeches about women gives the piece relevance, whilst more educational references – which this company are clearly capable of – could make this an exciting piece to tour round young audiences across the UK.
Midsummer Madness is playing the Rosemary Branch Theatre until 19 June 2016. For more information and tickets, see The Rosemary Branch Theatre website.