Shakespeare's timeless comedy returns to Sheffield

As a new production of A Midsummer Night's Dream opens in Sheffield, Nick Ahad speaks to artistic director Robert Hastie.

The Mechanicals and director Robert Hastie in rehearsal for A Midsummer Nights Dream at Sheffield Theatres.  (Pictures: The Other Richard).
The Mechanicals and director Robert Hastie in rehearsal for A Midsummer Nights Dream at Sheffield Theatres. (Pictures: The Other Richard).

If you believe the stories, Headingley Stadium can hold about two million people.

That’s approximately how many claim to have been in the crowd on July 21, 1981, the day Bob Willis ran in from the Kirkstall Lane end and turned Australian dreams to ashes.

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There is now a modern day theatrical equivalent of the Headingley Stadium ‘I was there’ claimants: the people who claim to have seen an original performance of the smash hit musical Everybody’s Talking About Jamie.

“There were fewer than 20 performances, it was on for two and a half weeks, but I’ve met thousands of people now who have told me that they were there for the original run,” says Robert Hastie, the man in charge of Sheffield Theatres, running the Lyceum, the Studio and the Crucible.

On February 13, 2017, Hastie had hold of the reins at Sheffield Theatres when Everybody’s Talking About Jamie, or Jamie as it has become popularly known, received its world premiere. Based on the true story of a young boy from Sheffield who wanted to go to his end of year prom in a dress, the musical was written by Tom MacRae with the music provided by Dan Gillespie Sells, writing music for theatre for the first time. To say Jamie was a hit is like saying Bob Willis bowled quite well on that day at Headingley.

The two-and-a-half-week run for Jamie in Sheffield led to an extended run in the West End and five star reviews all round. It has been nominated for Olivier Awards and made a stage musical star of John McCrea who plays the title role. Oh, it’s also being turned into a movie.

Given the huge success of his first project for theatre, the question was always what would Gillespie Sells do next with the theatre and would it be for Sheffield?

Gillespie Sells is no ordinary theatre animal: as lyricist and frontman of The Feeling he is an Ivor Novello winning songwriter who has penned tunes for Sophie Ellis-Bextor. Given his pedigree and the enormous success of Jamie, he could probably have chosen to work with whichever theatre he wanted to. He chose Sheffield and he chose to work on the latest production from artistic director Hastie.

The production is what sounds like an exciting new take on one of the most popular of all of Shakespeare’s plays, A Midsummer Night’s Dream. “It is a play that gets produced a lot and there have been times when I have wondered if I have seen it enough,” says Hastie when I confess that my reaction to another production of ‘Dream’ is generally that it’s lovely to see, but really, another? “There is something about the play that means it has really stayed in my head, so I see it as a challenge. It’s a case of if and when the right idea comes along to create a production, then I want to take it.”

A Midsummer Night’s Dream is one of Shakespeare’s most produced and best loved plays in which he has a huge amount of fun playing with form and content, the world of the fairies crossing over the with the world of the mortals. With the Rude Mechanicals, he also creates arguably his funniest comic creations.

“I always thought the key to unlocking this play was to find a way of introducing the fairy and the magical world that wasn’t whimsical but also didn’t drift into something really dark, which is almost as much of a cliche as fairy wings. What occurred to me was that really it was about the music. That’s not a hugely original idea, to bring music to the piece, but my idea was that if the forest of the fairies was kind of populated with catchy music that gets inside your head, then it was a nice echo of when the mortal characters are put under a spell.”

It’s easy to see why the idea intrigues. It fits very nicely with the plot. All Hastie needed was to find someone who can write catchy music. “I had been looking for an opportunity to work with Dan (Gillespie Sells). He is so invested in the city of Sheffield and in the theatres. What is great about him is that he is of course a hugely popular and experienced composer, but 
in terms of his theatre career he is still quite early on, so he is discovering the possibilities of 
what theatre can do.”

It’s not just Gillespie Sells who is making a return to Sheffield following critical acclaim. Daniel Rigby, who played the part of David Frost in this year’s well received production of Frost/Nixon, is also returning, to play Bottom.

“He is someone else I have been hoping to work with for some time now. People know his work as a great comic actor, but a lot of people don’t know that he is a first rate singer and very good pianist,” he says.

It’s quite the team on paper – and on the stage of the Crucible you can expect it to fulfil that promise.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream has been seen on the stage of the Crucible three times previously: in 1982, directed by Michael Boyd, in 1992 directed by Michael Rudman and in 2003 directed by Michael Grandage.

In recent years a ‘big Shakespeare’ was the signal of the Autumn season at the Crucible. Hastie says he doesn’t want to tie himself to such a thing, but will continue to programme Shakespeare as and when the time is right.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Sheffield Crucible, September 28 to October 20. Tickets on 0114 2496000 or online via