“The course of true love never did run smooth.” That is really being put to the test in London this summer, as A Midsummer Night’s Dream seems to be the play du jour; productions are running as part of Shakespeare in the Squares, as well as at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre & the Bridge Theatre, and earlier in the week Shakespeare’s Globe officially welcomed its own version to the stage. Directed by Sean Holmes, it features musical accompaniment from the Hackney Colliery Band, designs by Jean Chan, and a guest performance from an unwitting groundling…
You know the story: Hermia & Lysander wish to marry, but her father will have none of it and insists that she goes through with the long-arranged marriage to Demetrius – even bringing her to ruler Theseus to force a decision. Backed into a corner, the lovers flee to the woods; Hermia’s friend Helena has always loved Demetrius, so tells him of their elopement in the hope that she will gain favour from it, and they both end up in pursuit. A group of mechanicals have also headed to the woods, feeling that it’s a more suitable place to rehearse their play that will be performed at Theseus’ wedding to Hippolyta, though lead actor Nick Bottom makes an ass of himself when he encounters the sprite Puck… King & Queen of the Fairies, Oberon & Titania, are also roaming the woods and are in the middle of a colossal row over a changeling boy – he seeks to teach her a lesson using drops from the flower love-in-idleness, but in so doing also ends up involving himself in the young lovers’ plight and inadvertently allows Puck to make mischief with them…
This production has a lot to live up to, as the most recent iteration of this particular play at the Globe was Emma Rice’s smash hit back in 2016 – though for some it didn’t represent the values of the theatre, it nonetheless proved to be incredibly popular and lives long in the memory. It’s therefore quite satisfying that Holmes’ production is also incredibly colourful, exuberant, involving & diverse; this is probably the most over-the-top Shakespeare at this theatre since Michelle Terry took over, and the response from the crowd the most rapturous. A Midsummer Night’s Dream is one of the more well-known works, so it will always draw a reasonable crowd, but to pack out the house like this is wonderful to see – and really helps to create a great buzz by the final scenes.
Jean Chan’s designs are definite highlights of the production; the modern style with Elizabethan touches brings the play into the here and now, making it recognisably Shakespearean but not completely out of reach. The vibrant colours bring everything to life – the carnival has reached Southwark, and it is more than welcome! There’s also a hint of psychedelia in the design of Titania’s attendant fairies (Peaseblossom, Cobweb, Moth & Mustardseed), as well as what appears to be a nod to Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band in Theseus’ garish military garb. It’s so refreshing to see this blast of life make its way back to the Globe.
There is still an issue with sound: with planes, brass instruments & prolonged laughter, the words do have a tendency to take a back seat. The interjections during Pyramus & Thisbe are particularly redundant; the wedding party retreats to the musicians’ gallery, and short but awkward silences ensue as the guffawing audience misses their lines. Similarly, solo singers need amplification if they’re going to be heard over the natural volume of a brass band – it’s slightly less of a problem when a group sings together, but it’s still difficult to make out some of the words. I’m also still trying to work out why a few of the cast slipped into different languages at certain points in the play; presumably it was conceived as another way of showing that Shakespeare is for everyone, but I would’ve liked to have seen a little more consistency in its application to make it clear – as well as to make it feel like it fits with the story rather than just getting tacked on in random places.
It has been cast superbly and, especially as there is no fixed Puck, everyone really does get their own moment. Billy Seymour is particularly entertaining when he gets his chance to be Puck, taking full advantage of being able to wreak mischief. Jocelyn Jee Esien definitely captures the big-headedness of Bottom – whilst she does occasionally push it in pursuit of extra laughs, she is fun to watch and you can’t fault her commitment to Bottom’s donkey transformation! Nadine Higgin is first seen as incredibly harsh Egeus (Hermia’s father), but it’s as Quince that we see her most, and she clearly revels in taking the helm of Pyramus & Thisbe at the end of the play. Amanda Wilkin, Ciarán O’Brien, Faith Omole & Ekow Quartey make a wonderful set of lovers (playing Helena, Demetrius, Hermia & Lysander, respectively), the fight that erupts when the two men start declaring their affections for Helena is a particular highlight and really captured the audience’s imagination on press night. Finally, Victoria Elliott is hilariously disinterested as the captured Hippolyta, and brilliantly flamboyant & forthright as Titania, commanding the stage as well as her fairy attendants.
My verdict? Carnival reaches Southwark in this vibrant new Dream, with a lively cast & colourful designs – and don’t get comfortable if you’re a groundling!
A Midsummer Night’s Dream runs at Shakespeare’s Globe until 13 October 2019. Tickets are available online or from the box office. Standing tickets for £5.