A Midsummer Night’s Dream in Canterbury

Hannah Lloyd, playing Snout, Sid Moon playing Snug, Jim Newberry playing Starveling, Sally Elkerton,

Hannah Lloyd, playing Snout, Sid Moon playing Snug, Jim Newberry playing Starveling, Sally Elkerton, Director, Lisa Nightingale playing Bottom, Adam Summers playing Flute and Sarah Gooch playing Quince - Credit: Archant

The search for amateur actors good enough to tread the boards with the Royal Shakespeare Company has taken casting crews to all four corners of the country. But some of the finest in the land have been discovered here in Kent.

Think of what represents English culture. It’s hard to make a list of our artistic greats without including Shakespeare on it, and this year there’s even more reason to pay attention to The Bard’s work. It’s 400 years since Shakespeare’s death and, to mark the anniversary, groups of amateur actors are being chosen to perform alongside the Royal Shakespeare Company in an historic production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

It’s an incredible, terrifying prospect and although many of the actors have experience of putting on a Shakespeare play, this is a big jump to the Premier League. Known as the ‘Play for the Nation,’ these unique versions of what many consider to be Shakespeare’s finest play see the RSC working with 13 partner theatres, 84 amateur performers and 580 schoolchildren. They’ll team up with 18 professional actors and a talented creative team to put together one of the most ambitious theatre projects of the year.

In what is a major tour and the flagship of the nation’s Shakespeare celebrations, Kent’s own The Canterbury Players theatre group has been selected to star alongside the professionals.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream is one of the most uplifting and thought-provoking works of Shakespeare and this nationally important production will benefit from having local input when it comes to Kent. Local thespians will play the Mechanicals, while Titania’s fairy train is portrayed by local schoolchildren.

Curtains went up on the production at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon in February, before a major national tour sees each region visited. The entire company will head back to Stratford in June for the finale.

Getting the right actors for the roles was no easy task. The creative team at the RSC has travelled 2,360 miles to audition 586 amateur theatre makers in 95 workshops. Only the best of the UK’s amateur theatre groups made it through to the final cut and from each of the 14 chosen there will be actors playing the part of Bottom, Flute, Quince, Snout, Snug and Starveling.

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I caught up with Sarah Gooch as she was busy rehearsing for her role as Quince. She told me: “I have been acting for a long time, since I was 13 really, and I have been part of the players since 1997. I love Shakespeare and in the past I have directed The Winter’s Tale and an abridged version of Henry V. There is something about Shakespeare that I just cannot leave alone. I watched a film version of Romeo and Juliet when I was 12 and I was mesmerised by it, I didn’t even realise it was Shakespeare.

“At school when we read Shakespeare, I simply wanted to keep plugging away thinking that there was something in there, some meaning. I love the language as a lot of it is written in verse. It is of the time, but its understanding of humans and their relationships is quite remarkable. A lot of it is still applicable today and really spot on.”

To prepare for her role with one of the world’s most famous theatre groups, Sarah has been rehearsing four times a week, using technology to get over the difficulties of the RSC cast not physically being there.

“A lot of it is done through live streaming,” she added. “It’s a very different way of rehearsing and it is very pioneering because it’s one of the first times it has happened.

“There have been some teething problems, such as the stream not working, and these can be frustrating but they are soon sorted out.”

These broadband rehearsals have also given the group a chance to see how the other amateur actors are approaching the role around the country and to learn through the observation.

All eyes will be on Lisa Nightingale, who has become one of the first women to be cast in the role as Bottom. When The Canterbury Players join the RSC for performances back at Stratford in June, she will be the first female to play the role on that stage.

Sarah admits: “I am nervous and I was quite daunted when we heard we had got the job. The application took a long time and we had to go to the Barbican in London. We were ecstatic when we were told we had got it, but then we realised we have to deliver!”

When all the hype of the RSC national tour has calmed down and the final performance is given, it’ll be back to normal for Sarah and the rest of the players. The next production is more Shakespeare, with Richard III in November.

Erica Whyman is the RSC’s Deputy Artistic Director and directed A Midsummer Night’s Dream. She said: ‘It has been a privilege and a thrill to meet so many talented and dedicated amateur actors from all over the UK. We have cast people from all kinds of backgrounds, with a wonderful range of voices, shapes and sizes, but every single one has already demonstrated tremendous courage, skill and hard work to have survived the audition process and be selected to star in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. And they have done all this while holding down a huge range of demanding jobs in the daytime.

“Theatre is alive and well and practised with infectious enthusiasm and impressive talent right across the country. Shakespeare’s magical comedy has proved to be an affectionate, fitting way to celebrate amateur actors everywhere.”

You can get a behind-the-scenes peak at how the Canterbury amateur cast prepared in a 30-minute documentary called The Best Bottoms in the Land, which aims to capture the best of the action as the amateurs work with the pros to capture the best of The Bard. There’ll be nine regional programmes and each documentary will show the pressures and pitfalls of such a project, culminating in the opening night of each region’s local performance.

Craig Henderson, Head of Programming at BBC English Regions said: “We’re delighted to be working so closely with both the RSC and some of our regional theatres across England.

“We’ll be following the ups and downs as local amateur performers rub shoulders with some of our finest Shakespearean actors, giving regional audiences a fascinating inside track on the productions over the coming year.”

Find out more

A Midsummer Night’s Dream will be performed at The Marlow Theatre, Canterbury, 19-23 April. For tickets, call 01227 787787.