(Shakespeare’s Globe, 30 April-11 September 2016)
This Midsummer Night’s Dream had its work cut out to create the appropriate ambiance. The skies of London were weighed down with white clouds, biting winds swept down the streets and, all in all, the mood was more fit for Twelfth Night. Wrapped up against the cold, I came with some trepidation, and not only because of the weather. I’d been wondering what Emma Rice’s tenure as Globe Director would bring.
You know me. I like historically authentic clothing. I like original practices. And I like feeling, when I go to the Globe, that I’ve somehow tumbled through a wormhole into the lively, seething heart of Elizabethan Bankside. I already knew that I was in for something very, very different with this production, but I didn’t expect anything quite like this. In its staging, this was about as faithful to original practice as David McVicar’s Giulio Cesare for Glyndebourne, and it was all the more memorable for it.
Was it reverent? Goodness no. Was it authentic? Not remotely. But it was fun. More than that, it took Shakespeare’s verse and tweaked it and drew out every joke and resonance, and made it accessible and relevant and funny for every single person in that audience. And it was packed. Despite the grim weather, the promise of a Dream at the Globe brings them flooding in. By the end, the entire place was psyched and buzzing with an energy I’ve rarely felt there before. I don’t mean to criticise the historically-authentic style, because that’s what I love, and this is different, not better, but I felt that, while one watched a traditional Globe production, one was part of this.
The City trader sitting next to me in his pinstripe suit was laughing; the American college professors behind me, who’d brought a party of fifteen students, were amazed at how much their charges were enjoying it; and as I went down the stairs at the end, I overheard a little boy of seven or eight telling his mother how funny it was. Everyone I saw out in the yard afterwards was laughing and fizzing with superlatives. It’s magical enough to captivate children, naughty enough to keep the grown-ups laughing, and exuberant enough that it never offends.
We all know the story, don’t we? An old man comes to the Duke, Theseus, with a problem. He wants his daughter Hermia to marry Demetrius, a fine specimen of young manhood, who will make a good match. But Hermia is resisting. She claims to love Lysander, of whom her father disapproves and, worse still, says that he loves her in return. And there have been whispers about Demetrius and someone else: Helena (in the original). Faced with an ultimatum, Hermia and Lysander decide to elope into the forest. Helena, seeking to win back Demetrius’ favour, tells him of their flight. Demetrius follows, anxious of losing his future wife and Helena, lovelorn, follows him. Their confusion and emotional entanglements alone would make a fine story, but the lovers aren’t the only ones in the forest on this night. A bunch of hapless amateur actors are trying to rehearse a play to amuse the Duke at his wedding feast. And, as the night darkens, the fairy queen Titania and her estranged husband Oberon cross paths. Spiced with magic, their jealous rivalry sets in motion a series of events which will result in crossed wires, changed affections and ultimately – of course – a happy ending for all.
Rice, who directs this production (as well as being the overall Director), conjures up a collision of worlds. The four lovers, as well as Theseus and Hippolyta, inhabit our modern age, and we are very much in London, not in the play’s original Athens. Throughout, clever tweaks to the text replace ‘Athens’ with ‘London’ or ‘Bankside’, while the fairies referred to Lysander and Demetrius not as ‘Athenians’ but as ‘Hoxton hipsters’. These two were suitably different: Demetrius (Ncuti Gatwa) a smooth, well-tailored swaggerer; Lysander romantic and rather feckless (Edmund Derrington), the kind of guitar-toting dreamer that any sensible father would want his daughter to avoid. With two such eligible men chasing her, I’ve sometimes found it hard to warm to Hermia in other productions, but had no trouble here: Anjana Vasan delighted me from the moment she came on. Petite and slightly gauche, her Hermia was a skittish, tightly-wound ball of nervous energy, with sexual cravings barely kept in check. She was also more than capable of holding her own against her two admirers, which injected a welcome note of independence.
The main change from the original text that is, here, Helena because Helenus. For me, this transformation worked wonders. It emphasised the erotic charge and confusion of the tangled love affairs, and ramped up both the comedy and poignancy. Of the four lovers, Hermia and Helenus were the most engaging, but Helenus (Ankur Bahl) undoubtedly became the emotional heart of the piece. The programme explains the decision to make him a man, and its arguments were borne out in my experience. Normally, it’s true, one doesn’t quite understand Helena’s position. Why has Demetrius, who loved her once, become so keen to marry Hermia rather than her, when evidently their social positions are much the same? Why does she loyally suffer his scorn, rather than fighting back as Hermia does later? But, by making Helena Helenus, it somehow fits. One begins to understand why the emotionally stunted Demetrius might want to brush their former love under the carpet. One begins to see how a socially advantageous marriage might appeal to him. And one also appreciates why Helenus doggedly follows him despite the scorn, hoping that Demetrius might still love him behind the face he has to present to the world.
Ankur Bahl was one of the highlights of the production for me. He’s a gifted comedian, drawing out all the humour of the ‘gay best friend’ stereotypes, and also a noticeably brilliant dancer, which came in handy for some of the more unexpected moments. What would Shakespeare have thought when, on hearing of Hermia and Lysander’s plan to elope, Helenus joined Hermia in a snap rendition of Beyoncé’s Put a Ring on it? (In a funny way, I think he’d have loved it.) Bahl was also wonderful in the scene where the bewildered Helenus finds both Demetrius and Lysander pursuing him. His haughty, prim, maidenly disdain was spot on. But, crucially, he was also emotionally expressive. Let’s not forget that poor Helenus is bruised and bereft by his former lover’s rejection, and his frequent cries along the lines of ‘Why her and not me?’ gain a new charge. At the end, when Oberon sets all things right and Demetrius regains his former ‘taste’, Helenus’ joy is contagious. It was definitely a feel-good ending.
If the mortals seem to have stepped out of contemporary London, the fairies are a very different matter. Louche and decadent, they’re dressed in the remnants of Elizabethan costume with trailing ruffs and farthingales and unbuttoned doublets. As often happens, the same actors play Theseus and Oberon, and Hippolyta and Titania. While I wasn’t all that convinced by the duke and duchess, I thought the fairy royals were magnificent. Zurbin Varla made a world-weary, slightly soused Oberon (whose mannerisms at times bore a passing resemblance to Keith Richards or Jack Sparrow), whose spat with his wife leads to a deeply unpleasant practical joke. His Titania was played by the burlesque star Meow Meow, who may be more familiar to others than she was to me. I have to say she was excellent. Her entrance was magical: fluttering streamers of pink gauze spilled from the ceiling over the stage, and she descended in their midst, serene and infinitely conscious of her own desirability. Her singing and dancing were markedly, unsurprisingly strong: she impressed me greatly.
In the midst of his envious spite, Oberon only trusts one person and that is his loyal henchman, Puck. This production had the most delightful Puck I’ve ever seen, in the form of the petite Katy Owen, who sped around the stage like quicksilver. Her Puck was a mischievous Peter Pan of a sprite, constantly in motion, whose trainers flashed with lights and who carried a water pistol with which to torment the groundlings (homing in on bobble hats and long hair). Owen’s performance was so full of frenetic energy that her quieter moments really stood out – such as Puck’s realisation that he has mistaken one ‘Hoxton hipster’ for another, and potentially angered his beloved master. Kneeling before Oberon, plaintively plucking at his sleeve, this Puck was a loveable miscreant: a suitably vibrant, loyal scamp of a courtier for this fairy king.
So what’s the judgement? I really wasn’t sure I would like this, but the liberties it takes are wise and considered, and it adds to the overall impact. No, it isn’t a play for those who want to go and study the text. But it is an experience which I urge upon you if you want to see Shakespeare performed as a heartfelt, immediately accessible comedy. It’s very much something that you have to witness in person, I think: I’m not sure it would translate all that well to DVD, but perhaps it just needs judicious editing. One thing’s for sure. A Midsummer Night’s Dream is probably the only play you could present quite like this. The colour, the musical interludes and the sheer, overwhelming kitsch of the thing all gel together. It’s like nothing I’ve ever seen at the Globe before. It’s an anarchic, mental, colourful explosion of a play. And, if you miss it, you really will be missing out.