Merely Players

“All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely Players…” (As You Like It – William Shakespeare)

Unless you’ve been on a remote desert island somewhere, hiding under a rock, you must have noticed that 2022 is the year of the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee. However, you may not be aware that Studio Theatre shares their own platinum celebrations with Her Majesty this year.

To celebrate their 70 year anniversary (and as a tribute to Queen Elizabeth II), Studio Theatre have taken inspiration from the age of Queen Elizabeth I to create an evening of Elizabethan-style masque entertainment. Masques merged music and dancing, singing and acting, with lavish scenery and intricate costumes to create a form of exquisite and elaborate entertainment, and were very popular in royal and noble European courts during the 16th century.

Studio Theatre honours this art form with an original production using excerpts from Shakespeare’s plays interspersed with music and dance from the first Elizabethan age. Whilst there isn’t an overall plot as such, the passages have been selected in such a way that the whole production flows seamlessly from one section to the next so that everything makes perfect sense. Live acoustic instruments (including an impressive theorbo!) are played by David Rhodes, Rachel Fletcher and Olivia Dutson, blending together with pre-recorded music, enhanced by atmospheric lighting and well-timed sound effects, to add to the overall ambience.

Nine of the Bard’s plays are included in the programme so, as there are many more characters on display than performers, the actors take on multiple roles throughout the evening. The fabulous array of costumes, combined with projected images to provide an impressive range of scenery, all help to keep these individual characters distinctive and easily recognisable.

And yet, make no mistake, it takes more than merely first class production elements to differentiate between various segments and characters. You also need first rate character acting to add richness to the text. It’s not easy to play Shakespeare well – and there are so many wonderful performances here to enjoy!

Olivia Dutson is outstanding: composed, focused, totally believable with commanding stage presence, she has wonderful diction, facial expressions, combining all the skills she mastered whilst training with the Royal Shakespeare Company to absolutely embody each role she plays.

Rachel Fletcher matches her for diction, characterisation and capturing the nuances of each character, whether as Juliet’s bawdy and uproarious Nurse, the ruthless and ambitious Lady Macbeth, or her other cameo performances. Her comic and dramatic timing is impeccable in both delivering lines and physicality, and any pauses are full of purpose and intent.

David Taylor is born to play comedy; whether interacting with a puppet dog, laying traps or hiding under tarpaulins, his performances are full of warmth, humour, superb timing and delivery, and you can’t help but laugh aloud at his antics – for all the right reasons!

Like a chocolate box selection, there is something for everyone in Merely Players. I most enjoyed the Twelfth Night, Romeo And Juliet, The Tempest, The Taming Of The Shrew, Two Gentlemen Of Verona and Macbeth passages, although possibly because these are the plays that I know best. I love the way Studio Theatre develops talent alongside the experience of their more established performers, and Lewis Chalke and Cassia Woolley are both ones to watch out for in the future.

There have been challenges in bringing Merely Players to the stage, culminating in performances being reduced to just 3 evenings instead of the originally planned run of 6. This undoubtedly contributed to a few nerves, glitches, audible prompts and hesitations on opening night, and yet this is a very enjoyable evening of eclectic entertainment. Everyone has moments when they shine individually, and collectively they gel together so well as a company. Cast, to coin a modern phrase, “You’ve got this – so now relax and enjoy it!”

Reader, you can treat yourself to a selection of Shakespearean plays and music at the Studio Theatre, Salisbury with further performances Thursday 23 and Friday 24 June (7.30pm, tickets available online). Extracts will also be performed during Studio Theatre’s Garden Party at The Court House in the Woodford Valley on Sunday 3 July. Contact Studio Theatre for further information.