“I have a reasonable good ear in music…”

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Meow Meow in A Midsummer Night’s Dream
Photo credit: Steve Tanner

A couple of months ago I attended the Globe’s study day based around A Midsummer Night’s Dream. As I was back at the show for the first time in a few weeks last night I thought a new post was in order. (In case you missed them, I’ve already reviewed the show and written about an understudy performance.)

One of the sessions at the study day was a Q&A with composer, Stu Barker. As much as I’m interested in the play, this production in particular is fascinating for various reasons – its use of music is just one of them.

Nandi Bhebhe and company - Steve Tanner
Nandi Bhebhe and company in rehearsals for A Midsummer Night’s Dream
Photo credit: Steve Tanner

In Shakespeare’s day, nearly all plays would include at least one song so it’s only natural for productions to have a musical element. Generally speaking, in Tudor times the accompaniment wouldn’t be quite as extensive as we experience now – unless you were lucky enough to be at a court performance. The normal set-up would be a trumpeter, some wind instrumentalists & perhaps some musicians on strings.

The text in this particular play has a very lyrical quality anyway, so it makes an easy transition into being sung rather than spoken. A good example of this is Oberon providing the antidote to Titania towards the end (“Be as thou wast wont to be, see as thou wast wont to see…”) – it also keeps up the theme of music having a magical effect during the play.

Many of the specifically written songs have no surviving tunes, which does give productions a lot of freedom to bring in their own compositions. In the case of this production it allows for Bottom to impersonate George Formby, as well as the whole cast to break into a full-on Bollywood number at the end!

Edmund Derrington - Steve Tanner
Edmund Derrington in rehearsals for A Midsummer Night’s Dream
Photo credit: Steve Tanner

Before he began, Barker was given a broad range of inspirations to draw upon from director Emma Rice: punk, Elizabethan & Bollywood. Rice is a very musical director, which Barker finds very helpful to work with. He started writing 2-3 months before rehearsals, but it remained a collaborative process as he took influences from the casting (and the cast itself). For example, once Meow Meow was involved he knew he had to write a good song for her! The songs themselves are made up from speeches in the play, poetry & a couple of pop songs.

Barker was also influenced by gypsy beats and Radiohead; Lysander was seen as a bit of a hippy, perhaps the typical sort who’d go to Glastonbury, so his song (a musical version of John Donne’s To His Mistress Going To Bed) reflected that.

Rice’s vision was that the fairies themselves were around since Elizabethan times (hence their costume style), so Barker tried including some more traditional instruments – Rice apparently drew the line at the hurdy-gurdy!

I asked him if there had been any thoughts of making it into more of an actor-musician production. I knew that Ned spends some time drumming in the musicians gallery (“Ned’s very good”), as well as playing a bit of guitar onstage – and then there’s Ewan’s George Formby-style number on the banjo (he’s actually an impersonator). He does enjoy having the ensemble playing or making noise onstage if he can, which is something he does a lot with Kneehigh Theatre.

Zubin Varla - Steve Tanner
Zubin Varla in rehearsals for A Midsummer Night’s Dream
Photo credit: Steve Tanner

And I’ll end the post with a little plea: RELEASE A CAST RECORDING! This music is far too good to end up lost once the show closes. The initial plan was to bring a CD out (it was advertised in the programme and everything), but this obviously fell through. I’m not sure why – I was just glad someone in the shop knew and could put me out of my misery after asking a few times! I’ve overheard so many people humming the tunes coming out of the theatre, and everyone seems to love the music, so it seems a bit of a waste…

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