A young UK theatre group is making its UAE debut this week with one of Shakespeare's most beloved comedies. Scholars may squabble about the exact provenance of some of Shakespeare's writings, but it is generally accepted that the Bard penned 37 plays and 154 sonnets. It's a body of work that totals 118,406 lines, or 884,647 words, to be precise.
Of that mammoth collection, the fairy-tale play A Midsummer Night's Dream is one of his most popular and accessible works. It shifts from reality to dream, slapstick comedy to romance and includes a cast of characters that ranges from a high-born king to a lowly carpenter. It is ideal, then, for the debut performance from the British theatre troupe the Northern Shakespeare Company, at the Madinat Theatre in Dubai this week.
The play is thought to have been written between 1595 and 1596, in the decade during which Shakespeare also completed such great comedies as Much Ado About Nothing, As You Like It and Twelfth Night. In the 400 or so years since it was written, the play has been performed by acting greats such as Judi Dench (Titania), Ian Richardson (Oberon), Michael Gambon (Theseus), Helen Mirren (Titania) and even Benny Hill (Bottom the weaver) in a memorable British television production in 1964.
"It is by far the easiest of his plays to understand," says Alan Brent, who not only happens to be the founder of the Northern Shakespeare Company and this production's executive producer, but is also set to play the roles of Egeus and Snout. "It has great messages of love, some amazingly funny moments and a wonderful mixture of reality and magic. We can suspend our disbelief and float on the play as if we were in a dream of our own."
Brent, 51, spent part of his professional life as an investment broker before going to drama school at the Scottish Academy of Music and Dramatic Art in Glasgow, aged 26, and embarking on a career in acting. It is a job that has taken him across the UK in roles on the stage and in television and film, and includes a year with the Royal Shakespeare Company. Having spent seven years as chairman of the Yorkshire branch of the UK actors' union, Equity, he decided to set up his own Shakespeare company last year.
This was in part a move to create a company that stayed true to the original versions of Shakespeare's works, given the trend to modernise the setting of certain plays. (Think of Baz Luhrmann's film version of Romeo + Juliet, for example, or the production of several of the Henry plays set during the Second World War). The result was the Northern Shakespeare Company, which aims to be able to perform Shakespeare anywhere in the world within four weeks of starting rehearsals.
The UAE trip marks not only the first time that the young company has brought Shakespeare abroad, but the first time Brent has performed the Bard in foreign climes. It is an export about which he feels confident. "The wonderful thing about this kind of work is that it is totally global in its content. Four hundred years ago a man with a brilliant storytelling gift wrote these stories - of love, betrayal, comedy and tragedy. These stories need no adaptations, just excellent performances from the actors."
But what about the lofty language. Does that not impede the understanding of Shakespeare for a foreign audience? Brent insists not, explaining that as long as the rhythm of the speech and interpretations of the actors stay true to the plot, then any audience can follow. "The only slight adaptations are to recognise certain cultural things in order that no one inadvertently is upset," he says. "For example, we take note of the fact that it is offensive to some people if the sole of the foot is directed at them, so we have made a conscious effort to avoid that as the characters lay down on the stage."
That Brent is enormously enthusiastic about his company's debut in Dubai is clear; he says that their interpretation is done "brilliantly" and talks with pride of the "highest calibre" of his cast - a professional ensemble that he was well placed to recruit given his previous role for Equity. It remains of crucial importance, he insists, that theatrical companies keep stories such as A Midsummer Night's Dream alive across the world. "Everywhere there have been fantastic storytellers," he says citing the Iranian poet Omar Khayyam along with Confucius and Plato. "The stories of the master storytellers live in every country and continue to pass on the messages they convey to generation after generation."
One of those Brent signed up for this production is the director Jonathan Linsley, whose name will be recognisable to many from his role as Ogilvey in Pirates of the Caribbean or his appearance as "Crusher" Milburn in the British television series Last of the Summer Wine. He too echoes Brent's optimism abut performing Shakespeare in the UAE, explaining that Shakespeare was, above all, a great poet - "and I know that poetry is revered in Arabic culture".
For Linsley, A Midsummer Night's Dream holds a special significance because it was the play in which, as a young actor, he played Bottom at the Globe Theatre in London. One evening, a member of the audience fell in love with him and a year later the pair were married. Fifteen years on, his wife, Frances, is coming with him to see his latest work not only as director but on stage too, as Peter Quince, the carpenter.
There has, in fact, been plenty of doubling up of roles for the forthcoming performances, a pragmatic move given that theirs is a travelling production funded by ticket sales. One of those involved, Cheska Moon, will play the dual role of Hippolyta and Titania, neither of which she has tackled before but which she radiates enthusiasm about. "I am very passionate about Shakespeare, almost obsessed," Moon says. "In my eyes, he was a genius."
In playing Hippolyta and Titania, Moon is taking on the role of two strong-willed women, important parts that help explain Shakespeare's enduring appeal. Think of similarly strong female characters such as Lady Macbeth, King Lear's Cordelia or Portia from The Merchant of Venice. "Women in Shakespeare have always had important roles," Moon says. "Whether they create the main conflicts and base of the plays, or highlight interesting moral and cultural questions, they have always been put in challenging situations."
Starring opposite Moon will be Darren Beaumont, another member of the company who is playing Theseus, the Duke of Athens, and Oberon, king of the fairies and husband to Titania. Another Shakespeare devotee, he says that his "greatest love" is the Bard's work. He has played neither part before, but is overjoyed about the opportunity, especially with regards to Oberon. "King of the fairies with the power to change the seasons - who could resist such power?" he jokes.
The modern relevancy of Shakespeare, Beaumont says, stems from his acute observations about the human condition that still exist nowadays: "From relationships to political statements, love, hate, and questions about life - 'to be or not to be?'" he says. Beaumont argues that this remains true not only for adults but for young fans watching or reading Shakespeare too. "I believe children enjoy nothing more than a good story, and Shakespeare is certainly a master storyteller."
To demonstrate, Beaumont tells a story from his own household. He was in his kitchen learning his lines, and "my teenage daughter asked with a disdainful tone: 'What are you doing?'" he says. "'Shakespeare,' I replied. 'Oh that's boring,' she announced, 'We've done it at school.'" But Beaumont's daughter was unable to recall even the title of the work she had studied, so he devised a plan. "I told her that she would probably have no interest in the story of the fairy king and queen who have a huge argument and turn winter into summer and autumn into spring and make magic potion from flowers that make people fall in love with donkeys." It was a plan that worked. "For the next two hours we sat in the kitchen as my daughter quizzed me about what happened next."
Bottom the weaver waking with the head of a donkey is one of the comical elements of the play that has made it such a popular introduction to Shakespeare for children. Creating the head for this production was a challenge, says the costume director, Allison McKay, "because it had to be lightweight and transported easily". Happily, with a bit of crochet work and wiring, McKay and her assistant managed it.
After several weeks of rehearsals in Darlington and a dress rehearsal in front of family and friends, the cast arrived in Dubai yesterday. Brent has grand designs for his team. After this week's shows to both school and adult audiences, the company will return to the Middle East with more Shakespeare in the autumn, touring through the UAE as well as Qatar and Bahrain before moving on to the Far East. "It is a terrific challenge to bring such wonderful plays to a new audience," says Brent.
A Midsummer Night's Dream runs from Thursday to Saturday at the Madinat Theatre. Tickets cost between Dh200-500 (www.madinattheatre.com). email@example.com