To Dream Again, Theatr Clwyd, Mold

June 29, 2016 by
At the end of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the characters of Helena and Demetrius are very much in love, despite the trials and tribulations getting to that point. One of the principal agents in the couple’s game of ‘he-loves-me/ he-loves-me-not’ is Puck’s magical love potion, which forces one to love another pretty much against their will or comprehension. It is a spell; the only natural thing about it is the love-in-idleness bloom from which it comes.
So Shakespeare left the audience with a dilemma: if the only reason Demetrius loved Helena was because of a love spell cast upon him, would that love last? Was it true love? Was it even fair for them to be together if one was blinded from the truth?
This is where Toby Hulse picks up the quill in To Dream Again, a co-production between Theatr Clwyd and Polka Theatre in Wimbledon, to where the play will transfer in March 2017. The play is aimed at children aged seven and up, and imagines the consequences of Demetrius and Helena’s enforced romance. Set in the modern day, it plays out through the eyes of nine-year-old Sophie, who has a growing awareness of her parents’ disintegrating marriage. Her parents are modern equivalents of Shakespeare’s lovers, and it seems that the love they had when they first met has well and truly withered on the vine.
Hulse does not shy away from the realities of growing up in the 21st century. Yes, sometimes mums and dads fall out, and with that, they also fall out of love and out of one another’s lives. Sophie is about to become part of a broken family, something some of the watching children might be able to relate to, and this gives the play a melancholy truthfulness that’s painfully honest. This is no fairytale. This is real life.
Hulse specialises in work for children in an educational context, so he knows what he’s doing. Nevertheless, he’s brave to have crafted the ending that he has – Sophie desperately attempts to use a Puckish love potion to make her warring parents fall back in love, but ultimately fails, because you cannot make people love one another in real life. It’s brave because it dares to deny the young audience a happy ending, something they are accustomed to, and arguably something they want. What nine-year-old doesn’t want a happy ending?
To Dream Again raises the hopes of the young audience, but then sweeps that hope away by showing them that life can be cruel. There is a fault at the heart of Hulse’s decision to tell it like it is, however. When Sophie’s mum and dad tell her that they are separating because their marriage is no longer working, they vehemently maintain that their love for her will never change or die. Like any good parent, they are keen to make sure their child does not suffer or blame herself. But the play has already shown that love can die, and the magic can run out. It’s all well and good telling children that their parents will never stop loving them, but those same children have just watched a play in which the power of magic demonstrably will not work, and that love can leave. Might a questioning child not wonder if that could happen to their parents’ love for them?
It’s a tricky line to tread, and it’s admirable that Hulse chose to depict a truthfulness about 21st century relationships and their impact on children. But there may be aspects of the story that worry young viewers rather than reassure them. Maybe a few parents had some reassuring of their own to do that night after seeing the play?
Sophie is played by Hannah Hutch, who perfectly captures the restless presence of an imaginative nine-year-old. She’s rarely still, and through well-observed body language manages to convince the audience that she is a child. Children advertise their every emotion on their face at that age – they’ve not yet learnt to hide their feelings – and Hutch’s expressions do this expertly.
There are solid performances from Kieran Hill and Rebecca Pownall as Sophie’s parents (aka Demetrius and Helena), both bringing a naturalism to the parts which surely every parent in the audience could see themselves in. Dorian Simpson, a graduate of the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama and a member of the cast of last year’s hugely popular A Good Clean Heart at Cardiff’s The Other Room, is the perfect choice for the Puckish Robin Goodfellow, a plumber who comes to Sophie’s house to fix the boiler, but who is, in actual fact, her house fairy. He is automatically on the same wavelength as the young audience, displaying an innate ability to connect with children through his playful performance. He’s funny, silly, loveable and magical – all things children adore. The chemistry between Sophie and Goodfellow is a delight to watch thanks to the fun Simpson and Hutch have obviously had building the characters up in rehearsal. Give Goodfellow his own show on CBBC now!
Amy Jane Cook’s set makes the most of a modest space in that it manages to be both a house and a forest simply by shoving a sofa to one side and raising some floorboards. The floorboard forest is ingenious, and works effectively, but in the scenes where Helena and Demetrius are pursuing/ recoiling from one another, they do get a little in the way, of both the actors and the audience.
The sprinkling of Shakespearean prose into the play is an inevitable acknowledgement of its inspiration in what is the 400th anniversary year of the Bard’s death. Shakespearean dialogue can be difficult, especially for younger audiences and the uninitiated, so using it sparingly but effectively is key. Hulse achieves this for the most part, and does well to explain its oddness by claiming that is how people spoke long ago. But toward the end of the play the Shakespearean quotes grow longer, and I did detect a frisson of boredom crackling among the youngsters around me at a point where their attention should really have been on the great outcome.
But getting children into Shakespeare is no bad thing, and To Dream Again may well achieve this. It might send little girls home thinking more about house fairies and magic potions than the life and work of England’s greatest playwright, but it’s a start. It’s a beginning. And don’t all stories start at the beginning?
Performed at Theatr Clwyd, Mold, June 18th to July 2nd, 2016. Transferring to Polka Theatre, Wimbledon, March 10th to April 7th, 2017.

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