How do you go about adding music to some of the most respected works in the English canon? Joshua Potts meets  James Fortune, the man behind the music at the Everyman Theatre’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

“Oh wicked wall, through whom I see no bliss! Cursed be thy stones for thus deceiving me!”

These lines are spoken by a man who’s been partially turned into a donkey and back again, uttered at the mid-point of a disastrous play within a play. His name is Bottom, and he’ll be familiar to many of you reading this. He’s clueless, childlike, and committed to giving the performance of his life. Through him, Shakespeare reminds us, it’s somewhat gratifying to make an ass of ourselves. But Elizabethan drama is a wall of understanding, pecked at by a trillion English classes, the very stones of our culture that never yield lightly to an ‘A-ha!’ moment. To appreciate the bliss of Shakespeare, we must fight for it, because The Big Man is never easy. He makes an ass out of a lot of us.

“I remember absolutely hating it growing up,” says James Fortune. “Just finding it unnecessarily turgid and boring. Whenever you see it at its worst, you can see people acting, not thinking the language is real. But when you strip away the façade and speak the text…” He holds up his hands, his flat cap a centre point for sheaves of grey light at our window. Fortune has an air of contentment and self-knowledge. At least in this context, he knows what he’s talking about. The Everyman Theatre is following a barmy production of Macbeth with A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and he’s been hired as its musical director. He’s seen a blood-drenched Coriolanus at the RSC, a hilarious Twelfth Night, even jumped in to help out with Midsummer, when his mate couldn’t make a few gigs. He’s scored TV shows and sung in an a capella group. In short, he’s the kind of curious soul who can edge out conformity and supply an audience with fresh eyes to make sure they get their money’s worth.

Saying that, he’s candid about acknowledging Midsummer’s reputation for whimsy and irreverence. The play, along with Romeo and Juliet, is often seen as a gateway drug to the Bard’s more complicated oeuvre, having been revived almost consistently since its first staging. Its imaginative scope – faeries, sprites, and thwarted lovers running amok in a dream-like forest on the borders of Athens – has bred endless adaptations and re-workings, ranging from psychedelic opera to a Levi’s ad. Schoolchildren respond to its flights of fancy or visual gags, but there is a darker side that can be kind of passed off as an innocent fantasy; one that Fortune and his collaborators are keen to emphasise.

Saying that, he’s candid about acknowledging Midsummer’s reputation for whimsy and irreverence. The play, along with Romeo and Juliet, is often seen as a gateway drug to the Bard’s more complicated oeuvre, having been revived almost consistently since its first staging. Its imaginative scope – faeries, sprites, and thwarted lovers running amok in a dream-like forest on the borders of Athens – has bred endless adaptations and re-workings, ranging from psychedelic opera to a Levi’s ad. Schoolchildren respond to its flights of fancy or visual gags, but there is a darker side that can be kind of passed off as an innocent fantasy; one that Fortune and his collaborators are keen to emphasise.

"There are two or three actual songs written into the play. It’s like you’re working with the best lyricist ever because it just trips off the tongue.” James Fortune

“The play starts with a death threat: ‘If you don’t marry the guy I want you to marry, you’re gonna die’. You have to take that seriously. Nick Bagnall [director] has done a fantastic job of capturing that darkness. The innocence of the lovers is important; our actors are young, which is lovely and correct. Maybe that’s what kids relate to. I think our lovers are quite feral, of the woods.” Encouragingly, he hates the kind of aural cues that could bog a production down in tedious hippy-isms. “It makes you avoid certain things,” he tells me, warming to the topic. “There are twinkly-twinkly sounds that are a bit on the nose, forcing you down more imaginative ways to conjure magic. This could be in the form of a triangle, a glockenspiel, whatever comes to mind.”

Fortune’s musical instincts have paid off for him before. Laura Wade’s Posh, a caustic satire on the Bullingdon Club and its associated politics, gave him a chance to mess with contemporary pop songs, much to the amusement of the audience. “Every character was pretty hideous,” he recalls, “and we were looking for a way to give them a charm offensive. Posh ends badly – everyone fulfils their promise of being sonofabitches. If that’s the only thing you think about these kids, you can only see it on that level, so the director and I created a mechanism where the actors sang modern RnB hits in an extremely posh accent.”

So irony is important to your work, then?

“It was for that particular play, but I’d argue that a couple of them did it rather well.” He laughs. “Our version of Dizzee Rascal’s Come Dance With Me was hilarious.”

Although Posh debuted in 2010, Fortune’s affection for off-kilter soundtracks is going strong. He hints that similar interludes may penetrate the Everyman’s production of Midsummer, staying coy about the details, yet openly laying ground for a modern interpretation of Shakespeare, with a capital M. “No-one’s going to say ‘It’s a bit like Adele’, but there’s enough rhythm for the kids to dig it.” Right on, man. Digging further into his influences, I find that echoes of Belgian cabaret singer Jacques Brel and the gypsy-punk of Gogol Bordello will spice the play with an anarchism it sorely craves, taking it further from the potential for fluff and serendipity.

So things are looking good for this production, no doubt about it. Concessions to a Liverpool audience are shaping it into a minor cause célèbre; the mechanicals, I hear, will be played by genuine scousers, chirruping through Shakespearean verse like sparrows on an endorphin rush (with a fierce intelligence to match). Whether the same can be said of Midsummer’s grander characters will depend on how Bagnall, Fortune and their cast handle the play’s patriarchal tension, the duel of men and women between the imagined and the real, with love as their battleground.

A question still nags at me, because, after all, does Shakespeare really need music? I mean the incidental kind. Aren’t his words pretty much the perfect composition of sound in the first place?

Fortune stumbles slightly when he answers. “It’s easy to… no, no, easy is the wrong word…”. He collects himself, and the confidence is back: “That verse is very available for song structure. There are two or three actual songs written into the play. It’s like you’re working with the best lyricist ever because it just trips off the tongue.”

A bit faltering myself, I wonder aloud whether the rule of comedy translates to performing songs that are over four hundred years old: will he be a stickler for comic delivery, having the final say on how, not what, is being sung?

He reveals that, since rehearsals have begun, around 60% of his original demos have been discarded. There is an implicit trust between the play’s constituents, simmering at a point of creative respect. “I would never, ever tell an actor how to sing a song,” he explains. “With a cast this experienced, you can rely on them to discover character themselves.”

It makes sense. I can’t imagine someone telling a Hamlet how to kill his uncle, or how an Othello might plant his final kiss on Desdemona. The big moments we strive for and obsess over are best when they’re off the bat, swinging. With A Midsummer Night’s Dream, surprise is harder to eke out, but the Everyman’s current stab at it might just commit the unexpected, with a cracking soundtrack to boot.

 

Words: Joshua Potts / @joshpjpotts

everymanplayhouse.com.

jamesfortunemusic.co.uk

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