Emma Rice’s first production at Shakespeare’s Globe as artistic director is the perennially popular A Midsummer Night’s Dream; her favourite Shakespeare play, in fact. Her love for the story certainly comes across, in a bold & colourful new take on the classic. Every innovation is justified & makes complete sense to the story – nothing has been changed just for the sake of it.
There are some who might argue that productions at this theatre should be in keeping with their surroundings, and not bring in lights & loudspeakers. Innovation does need to be carefully considered, but this is the same in any theatre. Why should this one be any different? The Globe’s auditorium is not a museum, so its artistic director is entitled to do what they think is right for each show.
Rice’s use of the available space is extraordinary. Tables are set up in the yard for the actors to stand on; they also frequently run in & out of the auditorium, mingling with the crowd. Or playing with them, in Puck’s case!
This version has been transported from Athens to London, set primarily around the Globe & Bankside – with the lovers from Hoxton, in “hipster garments”. The mechanicals work at the Globe itself, ranging from peripatetic music teacher to aromatherapist. What makes this production particularly interesting is that Helena has become Helenus; it works so perfectly it makes you wonder why it isn’t done more often. To make up for such a prominent female role being given to a man, the mechanicals are all women (except Nick Bottom) and Puck is also female. It creates a dynamic energy amongst the company, giving it the spark to make something really special.
Upon entering the theatre you are greeted with quite an incredible sight. Orbs suspended in the sky, with green tubes hanging down from them, creating a kind of abstract forest. Also striking is the Indian flavour, including a unique house band on the top level of the stage. The costume design is equally bold, on the whole, only the lovers & mechanicals wearing slightly more regular clothes. Cabaret star Meow Meow, in both her roles, is a real standout – sleek glamour as Hippolyta, provocative as Titania. Victoria Brennan & Malcolm Rippeth’s lighting design adds a layer, in particular the moments when Love in Idleness takes its effect.
What is really special about this production is the effortless intertwining of Shakespeare’s words with music. The text is quite lyrical anyway, but Stu Barker’s score really shows it off in a new light. Be it a solo number from Lysander, or one of the several group performances, they are entertaining & seriously catchy. In Shakespeare’s time, his plays would be followed by a jig – this idea is taken & adapted with a Bollywood style twist!
Every member of the cast absolutely excels in their role.
As is often done, the parts of Theseus & Hippolyta and Oberon & Titania are played by the same pair of actors – in this case, Zubin Varla & Meow Meow. The pairs of characters have contrasting personalities but Varla & Meow Meow seem equally suited to both couples, throwing in some extra comedy for the Fairy King & Queen.
Ewan Wardrop is definitely the best Nick Bottom I have ever seen. In this production he is the health & safety officer, rather than the weaver. Wardrop succeeds in portraying Nick Bottom as arrogant without ever being irritating to watch – he consistently gets the audience laughing, in particular during the ‘play within a play’ towards the end.
Former Sunny Afternoon star Edmund Derrington takes on the role of Lysander, proving beyond all doubt that he is a man of many talents. We are treated to his musical prowess as he serenades first Hermia, then Helenus, in the forest. On top of this, Derrington has brilliant comic timing. His pursuit of Helenus after being doused with Love In Idleness is absolutely hysterical, especially when he has to compete with the also-drugged Demetrius. He even manages to make the single word ‘adieu’ hilarious! In Shakespeare he has found his milieu, and we can only hope he goes on to perform in more of the Bard’s great works.
Ankur Bahl puts in a perfectly pitched performance as Helenus. With the gender switch it could be all too easy to completely camp it up, instead Bahl is sassy & spirited. As well as this he easily wins the audience over, creating genuine pathos as his love for Demetrius goes unrequited. His look of shocked joy when he finally gets his man is a truly lovely moment – a well earned reward for long-suffering Helenus.
Katy Owen’s Puck may have a face of angelic innocence, but beware if you’re stood in the yard… She bounds about as if she has limitless energy, and really embraces the opportunity to play the trickster! Owen seems born to play this role. She is a natural comedian, stealing every scene in which she features. Her double act with Varla (as Oberon) is wonderfully entertaining as they play off one another. This is an inspired bit of casting and worth the entrance fee alone!
My verdict? A dream in more ways than one – a crazy, colourful reimagining of a classic that will have you crying with laughter, and coming back for more!
A Midsummer Night’s Dream runs at Shakespeare’s Globe until 11 September 2016. Tickets are available online and from the box office. Standing tickets for £5.