Neil Rutherford has had an extremely diverse career. Following 15 years as an actor in the West End, he’s taken on freelance writing, casting, composing and directing. This July, he’s directing Polar Eclipse Theatre’s very first production: a sixties take on Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream at Galärparken. On a sunny evening in Karlaplan, I meet the polymath himself alongside three of a cast of seven, Chris Killick, Cheryl Murphy, and Pontus Olgrim. Sat around a table covered with mood-boards, they take a break from the creative process to chat to me about how everything’s going.
How did you come up with the idea of setting the play in a sixties commune? How well did the original lend itself to the adaptation?
Neil: I was reading a Bill Bryson book on Shakespeare, and learnt that clay pipes filled with cannabis were found in Shakespeare’s garden. And, so I went, ‘Shakespeare writing all of the plays under some influence. That’s interesting.’ It makes sense, actually. And then today, when we were researching, I saw that Elizabeth I actually made it law that anybody who had a certain amount of land had to grow cannabis. So, look. Our take on the play isn’t about drugs. But that was my initial idea. To transfer AMND to another period where mind-changing activities were taking place. On top of that, a lot of the sixties period is about love, relationships, and self-discovery. And that’s what Shakespeare’s play is about, too.
Chris: And going against society.
N: Yeah. Like how the young female characters in the show don’t conform to tradition. They want to marry the person that they love, and not who their parents have chosen for them. So it fits absolutely with this sixties youth culture of wanting to do things your own way rather than as tradition dictates. Just like the forest in AMND, the commune is this free place where you discover things without being judged. Adapting the original hasn’t been that difficult. The only thing we’ve changed about the text is make it shorter. The text is all Shakespeare’s, which I think is really important because there’ll be Shakespeare lovers coming to see the play. It just fits beautifully in the new context.
Chr: Which is the incredible thing about Shakespeare. You can place it in a totally different world and it still makes sense.
I was surprised to read that this is a production that is suitable for children as well as adults. Considering that the play could contain a fair amount of free love and psychedelics, how have you negotiated these things in creating a family-friendly production?
N: We’re absolutely not advocating drug-taking. There won’t be anything like that on stage. But there’ll be elements where the adults will go, ‘Oh I understand what that is.’ Meanwhile, the kids will just find it really fun and zany.
Chr: Kids are a far more accepting audience than adults are, actually. Adults need everything explained. Kids are like, ‘The man’s turned into a donkey now. OK.’
N: And it’s a funny play for all ages. It’s about mistakes and errors. It’s a simple basis. The mistaken identity. That’s where the fun comes from in the play.
How difficult was it cutting the source material down to 80 minutes? Was it obvious which parts needed to be cut out? How did you go about making these decisions?
N: You have to be a little bit ruthless when you’re looking at it. You have to keep all the bits that everyone knows. If you cut ‘to be or not to be’ from Hamlet, everyone would be upset. You’ve got to know your play and know which are the bits everyone wants to hear. It’ll all be fine so long as the thread of the storyline makes sense.
Will you be bringing any original music to the performance?
N: There’s two songs that are brand new. They’re sort of like Simon and Garfunkle songs. Folky. Some guitars and cellos. They’ll be played live— sort of as if we’re in a commune. We’re also using some of the sort of Jimmy Hendrix, mad, loud, psychedelic stuff. That will come from a soundtrack, though. For practical reasons.
Modern critics have complained about the treatment of women in Shakespeare’s plays, particularly in the marriage plots. Did you feel a pressure or duty to voice something political in your production?
N: There is a message at the end, but I’m not going to give it away. We’ve done something. As you rightly say, the original script is very male-dominated. Yet, there are moments of resistance. The period we’re setting it in was a time when feminism had a massive resurgence, which is why the adaptation works so well with the text. It probably makes more sense in a sixties setting than an Elizabethan one. Hermia can say to her father that she doesn’t want to marry Demetrius. However, one of the things we’ve struggled with when adapting the text is the fact that Hermia will face death if she doesn’t marry Demetrius. Of course, in a more recent context, that’s a little harsh!
Cheryl: Everyone just caaaalm down, smoke a doobie.
I read that Polar Eclipse Theatre productions are all performed in English in order to reach a wider audience. How do you strike a balance between maintaining Shakespeare’s language and making it accessible to an international audience of all ages?
N: If you’re doing Shakespeare, you have to honour the text.
Chr: For me, Shakespeare for the general audience in England is as confusing as it would be for a Swedish audience. It’s really about how the actors portray it and show it. From my experience, the Swedish audience understand everything.
N: We’re always looking at the rhythm of the text. It’s based on a very natural way of speaking. And I’m always gobsmacked at how fantastic the Swedish are at English. I’m not remotely worried. I don’t want to patronise anyone, which is why we’re n-o-t g-o-i-n-g t-o s-p-e-a-k S-h-a-k-e-s-p-e-a-r-e r-e-a-l-l-y s-l-o-w-l-y. But, because we’re catering for kids, we’ll make it very visual. There’ll be moments in the text when a character isn’t present, but we’ll bring them on stage to help tell the story. It’s just about being clear.
Pontus: And it’s important to remember that there’s a fair amount of people visiting or living in Stockholm who speak English as their first or second language.
How are you using the space that Galärparken provides? Will the audience have much of a role?
N: I don’t want to give too much a way! We have a hippy bus on the stage with us. That’s the focal point of our set design. What’s really important is that the audience feel as if they’re part of the community of the hippies. In advance of them coming, they can look at the website and learn the songs with us so that when we get to the singing they can join in.
Che: They can come dressed up if they want.
N: I love that. The whole point of Park having free theatre is to involve the community. So why not take that one step further and actually have them be part of the show with us. Singing the songs, playing some parts, dressing up, and dancing. And at the end, we’ll put on some tracks. If they stay for the next hour dancing with us, so be it. That’s what the community’s about.
The play is free and Polar Eclipse Theatre is a non-profit organisation. How can the public support you?
Che: We rely on funding and donations to create our shows. We have a Swish Number if people want to show us some support. But otherwise it’s a lot of funding from Stockholms stad. But that’s application after application after application.
N: We want to create. And, hopefully, because it’s a free event, more people will come and see the show. Our aim at Polar Eclipse is to get a reputation for doing good quality stuff in the English language, and hopefully that will spur people to come see our venue shows. But for this one specifically, it’s about capturing the audiences’ imagination. We want to show everyone who we are by putting on a quality piece that’s fun, colourful, and exciting.
Polar Eclipse Theatre’s Swish Number is 1232876530.
Words: Daisy Fernandez