‘War Horse’ collaborators team up for a puppet-infused ‘Midsummer Night’s Dream’


"A Midsummer Night's Dream" from Bristol Old Vic and Handspring Puppet Company will be performed at the Kennedy Center's World Stages. (Courtesy Kennedy Center/Courtesy Kennedy Center)
March 8

On a chilly January afternoon, the acclaimed collaborators of “War Horse” — Bristol Old Vic’s artistic director, Tom Morris, and South Africa’s Handspring Puppet Company’s co-founder, Adrian Kohler — rehearsed their vibrant new production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” at the Arcola Theatre in northeast London.

“Magic and mythology live side by side in our production,” says the dapper Kohler, chatting in the lobby during a break. “In Shakespeare’s time, people believed in fairies and spirits, some of them malevolent and mischievous, so the wild goings-on didn’t seem so strange to them. We hope the audience will feel as if a supernatural force governs the action and will be willing to surrender to it. We want to touch their creative impulse. ”

Following the play’s successful run at the Bristol Old Vic last spring, it traveled to Spoleto Festival USA and then to the International Festival of Arts and Ideas in New Haven, Conn. But Morris and Kohler were still making changes in preparation for an engagement at London’s Barbican Theatre in February and for a tour to Boston, Santa Monica, Calif., and Washington, D.C. The play will be presented at the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater during the World Stages Theater Festival, March 20-23.

Thrilled with their last collaboration and longtime fans of each other’s work, Morris and Kohler leapt at the chance to join forces on one of Shakespeare’s most popular and widely performed comedies. To begin the process, they talked via Skype and sent drawings and pictures back and forth between Cape Town and Bristol. They wanted the play to be fluid, with everything in flux and the rhythm changing as the action moves from funny to serious to romantic and back again. Thus, most of the actors regularly switch roles, no one having more status than any one else, in what is a technically demanding and necessarily egoless production.

“The play has been created and devised by everyone involved,” says the actor Miltos Yerolemou, who relishes his role as the bumptious Bottom, the weaver briefly turned donkey. “We barely leave the stage and are involved in all aspects of the storytelling. We’re a true ensemble company, telling a story that we all think we know, but which can still surprise in a fresh, vivid new way. It should be performed with imagination and a lot of heart and playfulness, and that’s what we do.”

Kohler and Morris didn’t tamper with the language or basic structure. Set in a forest controlled by fairies, the action revolves around the marriage of Theseus, Duke of Athens, and Hippolyta and the shenanigans and squabbles of four Athenian lovers and a group of amateur actors. However, they did introduce 50 ingenious puppets, designed and made by Handspring Puppet Company in South Africa. On the premise that inanimate objects might be “alive,” the fairies can become almost anything that appeals to them, leading to a variety of hilarious and romantically complicated situations. The puppets include huge jellyfish-like creations, the fairy characters who take the form of a Japanese doll, a carnival sideshow clown, a winged moth creature, a giant carved head and hand depicting the Fairy King Oberon, an eight-foot tall Titania, and the character of Puck, which is created from various workman’s tools, and several wooden planks that become all sorts of beings and that are also played like instruments.

Kohler arrives in the studio for the rehearsal just as the cast members pick up their planks, for the moment looking more like laborers than performers. One of the women takes a seat on the floor. “Let’s call the scene the cuddle,” says Morris. A lanky man with a boyish face, he asks the other actors to surround her. Folding his arms above his head, he mimics the dying swan in the ballet “Swan Lake” so that she gets a sense of what he wants. They use their planks like oars, rowing into position, Kohler running over to adjust a couple of them. “Now speak the plank language,” Morris says to the others. Slowly, lifting their pieces of wood to different heights, their planks make swishing sounds as they arrange them to create the image of a sunrise around her. “Almost perfect,” he says, smiling.

For another half hour, they work on the scene until Morris’s assistant signals that it’s time for him to catch a train. Still fully in charge of the Bristol Old Vic, he regularly commutes between the Bristol and London, taking along his bike to ride in the different neighborhoods. On the street, he lifts it into a large taxi, ready to head to the railroad station. “I wanted to work with Adrian because I knew we’d be able to explore something freshly,” he says. “That’s the deal you want to make in theater.” Why “A Midsummer Night’s Dream?” “Oh,” he sighs with pleasure, “because it’s such a beautiful play, and it puts its finger on something simple and profound: Love is nonsensical. You can go to bed in love with one person and wake up the next morning in love with someone else. It dares to name a truth.”

Gladstone is a freelance writer.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream

will be performed March 20-23 at the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater as part of the World Stages Theater Festival.

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