After building up a big reputation for staging mythical stories and classics in a distinctively visual style in unusual locations, they relocated to France in 1991 where they became an international company mixing together circus, carnival, commedia dell’arte and kabuki performance traditions.
Though touring around the world, reaching parts other companies cannot reach, this year is the first time since then that British audiences have had the chance to see the Footsbarn’s theatrical alchemy in action.
Following their staging of A Shakespeare Party (a new show inspired by the Bard’s complete works) at the Globe in the summer, the company revived their production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream for the Edinburgh Festival and have now set up their big top in Victoria Park. This is certainly not Shakespeare for purists but in characteristically accessible yet innovative Footsbarn fashion, it does capture the dreamlike spirit of the play as it weaves its spell on the audience, enchanting young and old alike.
The downside first. In this version the original text has been heavily cut, with a little modern English introduced, and the verse speaking is generally very poor indeed some of the dialogue from the multinational cast is indecipherable, while the quality of the acting itself is also mixed, including some hammy performances. With the actors playing Lysander and Demetrius far too old for runaway lovers, there is no sense of the romantic or erotic aspects of the story, and the comedy tends to be done heavy-handedly.
However, the redeeming features of the show come from the wonderfully magical atmosphere it conjures up in ‘a wood near Athens’. The ingenious set, masks, props and puppets of Fredericka Hayter and exotic costumes of Hanna Sjodin are a delight to the eye, leading us deep into a fairy-tale world of magic mushrooms, gnarled oaks and flower boudoirs populated by fabulous creatures a sort of Teletubbies LSD land plus poetry. And Maurice Horsthuis’s multicultural music played live on stage, using instruments such as sitar, cello and mandolin, while sometimes intrusive, helps to evoke an otherworldly ambience.
Artistic Director Patrick Haytor gives the buck-toothed Bottom a bumptious charm: from prima donna Pyramus in the mechanicals’ play to asinine lover of Titania, who can’t believe his luck in getting his oats, it’s a very funny performance. While Akemi Yamauchi’s Titania lacks any regal authority, Joseph Cunningham gives Oberon an almost Prospero-like magician presence, as well as raising much laughter as Francis Flute reluctantly showing his feminine side as Thisbe.
As Helena, Muriel Piquart suggests the real melancholy of unrequited love and Caroline Piette makes a scatterbrain Hermia. Though Mas Soegeng is better at playing Snug’s kitten-like lion than Puck, who seems more stupid than mischievous, Vincent Gracieux impresses as exasperated director Peter Quince trying to enforce some order into the chaos.
The fantastical nature of A Midsummer Night’s Dream is well suited to Footsbarn’s imaginative performance style. And it’s great to see this travelling community of theatrical gypsies, whose influence can be seen in the likes of Kneehigh, Improbable, Trestle and Forkbeard theatre companies, back in Britain after such a long time away.