Image Credit: The Globe, Rob Farrow
Unlike Emma Rice’s 2016 production,this version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream doesn’t need excess artificial lighting to dazzle the crowds that flock to the Globe. The sheer energy of the cast is enough to arrest and overwhelm its audience.As sunlight streams into the theatre (I know- in London!) the cast squeeze out every bit of comedy and madness this play has to offer,much to the crowd’s delight.
The play begins with a swing and a bang, quite literally as audience members are brought up on stage to whack at a piñata and the Hackney Colliery band play. This perfectly sets the tone for the rest of the show:fun, playful, a true celebration of both of Shakespeare’s finest comedy and the rare British sunshine. The Hackney Colliery band match the energy of the cast as they progress through a series of cheesy songs, often at there quest of the characters themselves.
The costumes perfectly accent the mayhem and colour the play offers, taking clear influences from both drag and carnival culture. Most of the costumes are architectural,others are purposefully sagging and ridiculous, all are fabulously unflattering. Titania has bubble-gum pink hair and platform boots,the lovers have black and white ruffles splayed across their shoulders and Oberon is decked out in a circular gold monstrosity, reminiscent of an enormous chocolate coin. All that glitters is gold in this production, where excess is celebrated with vigour. Most interestingly,Bottom wears a rainbow coloured piñata in lieû of a traditional donkey mask an appropriate choice given that he is often poked, prodded and played with to the amusement of the faerie people and the audience. Perhaps a lesser troupe of actors would have been swallowed up by the costumes, but certainly not this cast,who dare to match the campness and craziness the costumes offer.
Victoria Elliott’s Titania brings the same excess and overt sexuality that Melissa Madden-Gray brought to the role in the 2016 Emma Rice version of the same production,without the seediness. Elliott’s interpretation of Titania seems to be heavily influenced by drag culture, in the sense that we are laughing with her exaggerated portrayal of femininity rather than at her. It is far too easy for actors to portray Titania as a simple idiot, even before she has the love spell cast on her. Elliott’s wittier, somewhat self-aware version of Titania is a refreshing change on a stage where women are far too often the butt, as opposed to the orchestrator of jokes.
Jocelyn Jee Eisen (Bottom) Rachel Hannah Clarke (Snug) and Nadine Higgin (Quine)are the most spectacular and charming of the cast. In previous Globe productions, the play rehearsal scenes are dull and lacklustre, a trial the audience has to wait through in order to get to the forest scenes. But in this production,Bottom, Snug and Quine have character and a connection to the audience, rivalling that of Titania and the lovers. Overbearing, trashy and lovable, their scenes are something for the audience to look forward to, rather than a bore. Hermia, Helena, Demetrius and Lysander perform against rather than with each other to generate the biggest laugh. However,this is somewhat forgivable, because while they lack chemistry with each other, they excel in connecting with the audience. Helena,played by Amanda Wilken, commands the audience’s love and sympathy with her pathetic Helena. She slouches across the stage, desperately attempting to woo Lysander, and breaking the fourth wall with reckless abandon.
Perhaps Peter Bourke’s Oberon lacks the authority and commanding presence the role traditionally demands, largely because of the multiple Pucks who weave across the stage and groundlings overshadowing him and distracting the audience at every turn.
The choice to litter the stage with multiple Pucks certainly adds to the chaos and comedy of the play. It might have been more effective however to have a single Puck for Oberon to unleash his anger upon in Act Two. Bourke does, at least, make the often-forgettable Theseus a lovable fool, a particularly difficult job given the controversial nature of the character.
This production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream is more daring and bizarre than ever before, but unlike Rice’s controversial production, the craziness complements rather than detracts from the play itself. Casting and costume choices are made to mystify and delight the audience rather than to push and challenge them. One thing is certain: by the end of the performance, the audience trickles out into the courtyard in a stunned daze, half feeling like they’re slowly waking up from a bizarre yet brilliant dream