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Susan Elkin: Let’s do A Play for the Nation every year

Canterbury schoolchildren in the RSC's A Midsummer Night's Dream: A Play for the Nation. Photo: Topher McGrills
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Whose idea was RSC’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream: A Play for the Nation? Give him or her an OBE. The whole concept is one of the most inspired celebratory training initiatives I’ve ever encountered – as well as producing a glitteringly good evening’s theatre.

This Dream, which I saw at Marlowe Theatre, Canterbury last week, opened at Stratford earlier this year and tours until June 4 to nine more venues from Blackpool to Belfast and Norwich to Truro, including a week at The Barbican. Then it goes back to Stratford.

At each venue the professional cast works with local amateurs. The latter play the mechanicals and schoolchildren who form Titania’s train. The Canterbury Players, for example, were on stage at the Marlowe and members of Tower Theatre will be at the Barbican. One of the Marlowe staff tells me that director Erica Whyman has her work cut out because, unusually for a director of a touring play, she has to be at each venue to rehearse the new cast.

Read our interview with Erica Whyman

That’s what I mean by training. These enthusiastic, talented amateurs have the experience of being directed by the RSC’s deputy artistic director – Gregory Doran’s number two – and it doesn’t come much better than that. The schoolchildren are gaining and learning and will remember their RSC experience for the rest of their lives. The training extends right into the schools. There are extensive resources and teaching materials free on the RSC website for teachers to use and the young fairies I saw had clearly been very carefully coached, presumably by their own teachers, in the songs well in advance.

It’s a massive project. Over 12 weeks, 685 people will have taken part in this show. That includes 84 amateur actors from 14 non-professional companies, along with 58 groups of 10 schoolchildren. In July they all repair to Stratford where each group will do a handful of shows with the professionals in what resembles a festival rather than a mere run of a single show.

There have been plenty of dreadful puns about finding the best Bottoms in the land but I have to say that Lisa Nightingale certainly excelled at the Marlowe. Initially (and understandably) slightly hesitant, she soon settled into a finely judged, impeccably stagey, comic performance. The other five performers from Canterbury players were a fine support group. Every nuance and shred of individuality was expertly played for laughs.

What a celebration of amateur theatre and what a lot of learning. I was moved to tears at curtain call to see terrific professional actors such as Ayesha Dharker (Titania), Chu Omambala (Oberon) and Lucy Ellinson (Puck) standing aside to give Nightingale and co centre stage first.

This project was obviously conceived to for Shakespeare 400. Please, don’t let’s stop there. We need much more of this sort of thing, preferably every year.

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