The Mechanicals at Etcetera Theatre
Until Thursday 23rd August
Address: 265 Camden High St, Camden Town, London NW1 7BU
Phone: 020 7482 4857
If Withnail and I is to be believed (and with the possible exception of the virtues of drinking lighter fluid it should always be) an actor’s primary ambition is Shakespearean glory. Shakespeare himself on the other hand, far from glorifying his profession, had a sado-masochistic tendency to mock thespians when they would pop up in his plays, presumably whilst the Lord Chamberlain’s Men tried to restrain the urge to publicly murder him. One of the most abused of The Bard’s fictional troupes are the Rude Mechanicals of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Shakespeare rewards their simple desire to perform at a royal wedding party with a nightmare performance riven with inter-cast sniping, on- stage disaster and mystical transformations into horrific human-animal hybrids that should be wincingly familiar to any seasoned actor.
The Mechanicals, currently showing at Camden Town’s Etcetera Theatre until October 23rd puts these would-be world beaters centre stage in what amounts to a prequel to their famous performance. However anyone hoping for a deep dive into the ‘live fast, die of disfiguring burns’ world of Athenian joiners that Snug was only able to escape due to her high midichlorian level will disappointed. The Mechanicals instead takes the form of the not-exactly smooth rehearsals that led to the choice of Pyramus and Thisbe as the play within a play in Midsummer Night’s Dream. This might not seem overflowing with dramatic possibilities but in the hands of theatre company Forgone Conclusion and director Bryony Ruddock and a cast who are anything but mechanical (apologies, apologies) The Mechanicals is a frantically careening mix of Shakespeare and physical farce that doesn’t so much entertain as deliriously bulldoze everything before it.
The play begins with the actors taking requests from the audience as to which scenes they should perform, from a rather terrifyingly extensive list of different Shakespeare plays (including Pyramus and Thisbe natch). It goes without saying that not a single one comes off without a hitch; however each individual theatrical disaster clearly required the kind of obsessive precision that must have made rehearsal resemble the opening scenes of Full Metal Jacket. Any given scene will be subject to a frankly cartoonish amount of disaster, which is given inter-character focus by quickly sketching the various rivalries and seductions that exist between the various Mechanicals. The alarmingly indefatigable Rowland Stirling’s happy-go-(un)lucky Tom Snout gets the most of this, being involved in a pornographically physical relationship with Sarah Hastings’ Starveling and an actively dangerous rivalry with Fergus Rattigan’s borderline psychotic Bottom. The troupe are knocked down, bitten, entangled and wickedly subverted by each other as they literally fight their way through some of the most famously cerebral verse in the Shakespearean canon. Physical comedy can turn off as many people as it entertains but The Mechanicals manages to uplift itself out of genre ghettos. Whilst the cast is capable of pratfalling with the best of ‘em there’s some damn good Shakespeare being performed amidst the carnage.
Considering that the full list of available scenes includes ‘deep breath’ Taming of the Shrew, Midsummer Night’s Dream , Othello, Much Ado about Nothing , As You Like It, 12th night, Comedy of Errors, Romeo and Juliet ,Hamlet and Richard III there is a substantial amount of contrast between each scene. The entire show is an hour so they are understandably undertaken at breakneck pace which adds to the runaway train nature of the performance. This naturally means that the audiences mileage will vary depending on the scene: personally the scenes that were broken down between two actors (such as Taming Of The Shrew where Stirling managed to give a BP oil spill a run for its money whilst being fended off with more than usual violence by Sebastian Gray’s Kate/Flute) almost exclusively stole the show for me. However but the bigger group scenes tended to have the more elaborate and impressive physical moments, which going by the audience laughter, definitely had their champions. Considering that the order of the scenes are entirely in the hands of the theatre-going public (yeah, those animals) it’s hard to know what to predict, for both the audience and the cast. This can sometimes work against the play: on my showing it opened with 12th night, one of the more technically complex scenes, which regrettably played when the audience were not necessarily completely sure of the conceit. But this is the danger of proceeding blind and the cast all acquitted themselves more than admirably.Whilst the audience participation of choosing the scenes may be a tad unnecessarily high concept, the results are painfully good fun.