With the sheer volume of theatre available to us these days, it’s hard to imagine that it could ever be outlawed. But at the height of Puritanism, theatre was indeed banned – and from around 1642 you could only find elite actors in plays abroad, and the part-time actors returned to focus on their livelihoods. But if you weren’t fussy about the calibre of actor and simply wanted an amusing diversion over a drink, another group of part-timers (generally with no other discernible talents) came up with the idea of the ‘droll’. These were essentially the best bits of a classical play taken out of context and spliced together with some extra jokes and music; performances were technically illegal, but that didn’t stop them.
And so we come to the Owle Schreame. This year they are performing the droll version of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Droll, which centres around the Mechanicals (and Bottom in particular), with some fairy fun thrown in for good measure. As these are the most comedic scenes in the play it is rather full-on – especially with the added jokes (even if some are lost in translation across the centuries) and musical numbers.
Also by taking these particular scenes, the droll is slightly more intelligible than I imagine some of the others ended up being; we follow Bottom’s story from beginning to end, with the fairies as supporting characters and duly given a lesser amount of stage time – but just enough to explain their part of the story. The aim of this droll, after all, is to entertain – and it certainly does that!
There’s also an element of education, as director & actor Brice Stratford gives a brief introduction and summary that explain the context in which these drolls were created, championing them where the academics gave previously turned up their noses. It’s fascinating to think that these are the earliest adaptations of Shakespeare, and that the show presented by the Owle Schreame would have had a similar kind of feel when it was first performed back in the 17th century; the costumes and props (Amélie Rousseau and Laura Romer-Ormiston) used also have a look of authenticity about them.
But despite all this, it doesn’t feel at all distant from theatre that we know and love today – probably because, as Stratford suggests) there is a direct link between these drolls and shows that we see produced now. Particularly at fringe festivals!
The company are lively, and double up effectively and entertainingly (incidentally, this is an early example of intentional doubling rather than it being done out of necessity). It’s pretty fast-paced in places, so there is some call for quick costume changes, though given the nature of the piece it doesn’t matter too much if things are more shambolic than slick – it adds a certain charm, as well as extra amusement.
James Carney leads the musical numbers with gusto and gives Oberon a slightly maniacal edge (it actually reminded me a bit of one of the Blue Meanies from Yellow Submarine), pairing well with Sami Abu Wardeh as Pugg – who also gives a memorable Thisbe. Laura Romer-Ormiston is hilarious as smitten Titania and has fun with Snug’s role of Lyon, plus Duncan Henry is especially funny as Starveling takes to the stage as Moonshine. Thankfully, Brice Stratford brings an element of likeability to Bottom, meaning the character’s inherent big-headedness is balanced out with a bit of charm.
Though most people do know the plot to A Midsummer Night’s Dream, it’s not essential. It’s easy to follow whether you know what’s coming or don’t!
My verdict? A fun-filled Shakespeare adaptation from the good old days – the ideal way to kick off a day at the Fringe.
A Midsummer Night’s Droll runs at Gilded Balloon, Teviot Square (Billiard Room) until 26 August 2019. Tickets are available online or from the box office.