As we move towards the month of August, I wasn't surprised to hear that a business acquaintance — like Bottom the Weaver, a keen theatrical — had been hard at work rehearsing the part of Lysander in A Midsummer Night's Dream for the Lanercost Priory Festival in Carlisle.
I've always been a fan of Shakespeare. And I do mean 'fan': in my student days in the 60s, there was a small group who took a keen interest in everything at the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford, and three productions in that period provided what proved, in turn, to be the most exciting, the most amusing and the most stimulating evenings I have ever spent in the theatre.
The most exciting was, without doubt, the 1970 Peter Brook production of A Midsummer Night's Dream.
I won't bore you with Brook's ideas behind the production, but I do remember hearing that he got his central vision of the play from a Persian circus he had seen in Paris. Certainly, the fairy magic was represented by circus tricks: the fairies entered on trapeze bars, and the love potion that Puck fetches was a spinning plate on a rod which Puck tossed to Theseus from a trapeze fifteen feet above the stage. When Bottom turned into an ass, he acquired not the traditional ass's head, but a clown's red nose.
In those days, too, Stratford seemed to be full of great names, actors and actresses — yes,we had actresses as well as actors then — whose very names could fill a whole theatre night after night. Between 1965 and 1970, there was such a galaxy of acting talent at Stratford that almost every night provided excitement, laughter or stimulation in equal measure.
Janet Suzman (Nicholas and Alexandra);
Ian Richardson (House of Cards);
David Warner (Star Trek V and VI);
Judi Dench (you name it…..!);
Glenda Jackson (Women in Love);
Malcolm McDowell (If, O Lucky Man! — and “the man who killed Captain Kirk");
Frances de la Tour (Miss Jones in Rising Damp);
Diana Rigg (Emma Peel in The Avengers);
Ian Richardson (two of the Lord of the Rings films);
Michael Jayston (Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy);
Clive Swift (Keeping Up Appearances);
Michael Williams (TV's A Fine Romance with his wife, Judi Dench);
Patrick Stewart (Star Trek's Captain Jean-Luc Picard);
Ben Kingsley (Gandhi);
Susan Fleetwood (recently seen in New Tricks);
Helen Mirren (The Queen);
Eric Porter (the definitive Soames in The Forsyte Saga);
Paul Scofield (A Man For All Seasons);
Vivien Merchant (who first portrayed most of the characters in the plays of her then-husband, Harold Pinter);
Donald Sinden (Our Man from St. Mark's, Never the Twain, Judge John Deed);
Bill Fraser (Bootsie & Snudge).
Clive Barnes wrote of Peter Brook's Dream in the New York Times: Once in a while, once in a very rare while, a theatrical production arrives that is going to be talked about as long as there is a theatre, a production that, for good or ill, is going to exert a major influence on the contemporary stage. Such a production is Peter Brook's staging of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, which the Royal Shakespeare Company introduced here tonight. It is a magnificent production, the most important work yet of the world's most imaginative and inventive director. If Peter Brook had done nothing else but this Dream, he would have deserved a place in theatre history.