A Midsummer Night’s Dream
By William Shakespeare
Directed by Emma Rice
Dramaturg, lyricist – Tanika Gupta
Set Designer – Borkur Jonsson
Costume Designer – Moritz Junge
Composer – Stu Barker
Shakespeare’s Globe, London
Sunday 22nd May 2016, 13.00
Ankur Bahl – Helenus
Margaret Ann Bain – Flute/Philostrate
Nandi Bhebhe – First Fairy/Starveling
Edmund Derrington – Lysander –
Tibu Fortes – Cobweb
Ncuti Gatwa – Demetrius
Meow Meow – Hippolyta/Titania
Katy Owen – Puck / Egeus
Edith Tankus – Snug
Lucy Thackeray – Rita Quince
Alex Tregear – Snout
Zubin Varla – Theseus/Oberon
Anjana Vasan – Hermia
Ewan Wardrop – Bottom
Stu Barker- dulcimer, harp, trombone, bass, percussion
Pat Moran – MD, guitars, bass, keyboard
Sheema Mukerjee- sitar, clarinet
Jeevan Singh – tablas, dholek, dumbek, keyboard
Titania (Meow Meow)
I read the reviews. A four star consensus, but I still went in with lingering doubts about Emma Rice’s production in my mind. A lighting plot? A PA system? Microphones? An electric band? Text changes? Added lines? Humph, I thought. Where do you stop? If the shape and atmosphere of the theatre is the only thing that makes it The Globe, why not put in comfortable seats in the galleries? Let’s get rid of that flaking white limewash that gets onto your clothes. A nice bit of fibre board over those exposed oak beams, perhaps? Hell, let’s put a perspex roof over the lot, central heating, and play it 12 months a year. I don’t believe that’s what Sam Wanamaker intended.
It took around 30 seconds for all doubts to fly out through the (still) open roof and I was spellbound. If there’s a Shakespeare play you can play around with, it’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. I saw the Peter Brooks production with the cast on trapezes, and twin drummers, up above the set punctuating the lines. One apparently was the great jazz drummer, Phil Seaman. Then I saw the John Caird production with Richard McCabe as Puck, in Just William schoolboy clothes with fairy wings, working off a junk heap, and David Troughton as Bottom. The Dream is made for radical theatrical innovation. It gets it in this production. My companion saw those too, and deemed Emma Rice’s 2016 production the best she’s ever seen. I’ll be more temperate, and just say it has equal impact to the Peter Brooks and John Caird. I’d also not downgrade this year’s RSC production (which has more magical magic, and sharper text focus). I reckon that’s two five star productions of the Dream in a year. Given yesterday’s magnificent Branagh Romeo & Juliet it is a rare weekend with two five star Shakespeare productions.
The stage before the show: PA speakers top right and top left!
After the RSC’s tour with amateur groups playing the Mechanicals in different locations, this version sets them up as Globe Theatre female ushers and cleaners, led by Rita Quince (Lucy Thackeray), with Bottom (Ewan Wardrup) as the Bankside Elf & Safe Tea (my misspelling) officer. In the programme, Emma Rice mentions the Globe volunteers, and says “where do you find a modern group of volunteers who are not mainly women?’ Er, from past observation, The Globe! And it had plenty of male ushers this afternoon. Anyway, Rita Quince starts the day by introducing her team, dotted around the Globe, and with a series of public announcements, while our Health and Safety Officer, Nick Bottom strikes poses. No mobile phones. Gel down bouffant hair so people behind can see, Don’t urinate in public and don’t spread syphilis.
Theseus (Zubin Varla) strolls on, vapour cigarette in hand, with the gorgeous Hippolyta, played by Meow Meow, in leopard skin print and very high heels. Egeus wheels himself on in a wheelchair to accuse Lysander of trying to take his daughter Hermia away from the chosen betrothed, Demetrius. The lovers pop up from various parts of the Ground area.
Demetrius (Ncuti Gatwa) and Helenus (Ankur Bahl)
The biggest innovation is recasting Helen as Helenus, a gay male (Ankur Bahl). (Wait a minute, I thought they were trying to find more roles for women at the Globe with the aim of a 50/50 gender split, and here they are making a truly plum female role male.) But OK, it works. So Helenus is Hermia’s gay best pal, an essential accessory for any self-respecting Metro Millennial woman, or as they say here Hoxteth Hipster. Hermia is played by Anjana Vasan. Demetrius has decided he’d better reject his past with Helenus and do the expected thing and marry a woman.
The fairies arrive … Nandi Bhebhe is lead dancer and singer
We’re looking at modern dress, but as soon as we get into the forest, we explode into wild dance and the fairies are dressed in semi-Elizabethan tat, and Puck (who could even guess she was doubling as the crippled Egeus) is in a yellow pants and fishnets. Oberon wanders on in Elizabethan gear, clutching a 2 litre bottle of Strongbow cider, for he is pissed. Titania’s skirt has an Elizabethan back, but no front. The costume is superb, culminating in the final wedding scene where Hippolyta has the most beautiful white gown (just look at the back) and Theseus’s gleaming white suit is a Persil advert.
Some reviews were sniffy about the Mechanicals, in that Bottom is played very large, but that’s how it should be, with American accents, acrobatics and all. He’s showing off to his all female troupe. The most butch one is cast, to her horror, as Thisbe.
Bottom and the Fairies
Once Bottom has the ass’s head on, we get a pastiche George Formby dance with ukulele which Titania is drawn into … and Meow Meow is a fabulous dancer. So is Ewan Wardrop- he is also a fairy dancer on their first entrance.Then we’re into the funniest Shakespeare scene I have ever witnessed, as Meow Meow’s Titania is in a frenzy of lust, and struggles to remove three sets of tights, getting ever more tangled.
Titania (Meow Meow) and Bottom (Ewan Wardrop)
There is a lot of music punctuating it. The sitar player, Sheema Mukherjee (who I have seen with The Imagined Village) is central above the inner stage with a white electric sitar. Some reviews noted music interfering with lines. We were dead central, and we missed no lines at all. There’s also a lot of action … I don’t think I’ve seen firemen’s poles used for entrances before.
Another excellent idea is the puppet changeling boy, beautifully manipulated, and in Indian garb.
L to R: Hermia (Anjana Vasan) and Helenus (Ankur Bahl)
The lovers scenes work surprisingly (to me) well with a very sympathetic gay Helenus. It makes Lysander’s confusion when he wakes up and finds himself fancying him all the funnier, and Helenus and Hermia bitch away merrily about their old friendship being ignored. Anjana Vasan’s Hermia, is all spectacles and sincerity, but my goodness, is she prepared to go for it with the lusty Lysander early on. A nice touch was Helenus trying to revive the unconscious Lysander, using his first aid kid, pumping his chest, then going in to give him the kiss of life.
Puck (Katy Owen)
Puck (Katy Owen) is ever present, shooting water pistols at the audience, leaping around the set, doing very rude things with a banana. As with every other great Dream, the Oberon / Puck interaction is central and crucial. Here it’s very physical, with her leaping onto him. When he tries to wake Demetrius, he gets terribly entwined and Puck joins in. Zubin Varla’s voice resounds as both Theseus and Oberon. It’s perfect for Shakespeare’s text.
Oberon (Zubin Varla) applies the love drops to Titania (Meow Meow)’s eyes
The Pyramus and Thisbe play by the ushers is introduced by Rita Quince, with a naff Casio electric keyboard and a cymbal. They have a Blue Peter castle made of cardboard boxes as a set, and The Wall has been made of cereal boxes and masking tape. They use the “between the legs” chink or hole joke (by no means the first) but this was so funny because we kept expecting Pyramus’s feathered helmet to go where no feather had gone before. The moon was in a spacesuit (the man on the moon) while the lion, played by a cleaner we’re told, had a mane of yellow Marigold gloves from the cleaners’ cupboard.
I’ve mentioned the wedding costumes … all four lovers get changed on stage. Theseus and Hippolyta switch back to Oberon and Titanis and have a very clever song to the tune of The Impossible Dream, and are then put in hoists and flown. A great stomping dance to end. My hands have never been sorer from clapping.
No question. Five stars.
One of the pleasures of a new season at the RSC or the Globe is fresh faces among the cast. This is probably the freshest I’ve seen … I only knew Zubin Varla, and our sitar player. As it is inevitable to cast people whose abilities you know, I’m sure we’ll be seeing more of them.
I’d love to see it at night. Even on a sunny afternoon, we could see the white globes lighting up, and the pulsing neon ROCK THE GROUND sign. We will endeavour to see an evening show if we can.
An old complaint. In the lengthy detailed credits and long lists of sponsors, they mention that Meow Meow has worked with David Bowie. They fail to mention that David Bowie wrote Space Oddity, which the Mechanicals sing. Nor a Beyoncé Knowles song, Single Ladies. Nor The Impossible Dream. Tanika Gupta gets half a column for being dramaturg and lyricist and very funny the new lyrics to The Impossible Dream are. Among those pages of sponsors, is there no space to credit Mitch Leigh who wrote the music for The Impossible Dream for Man of La Mancha, even if you skip the original lyricist Joe Darion?
BUT WHAT THE PAPERS SAY AND SOME EXTRA THOUGHTS …
The Sunday Times noted a problem with coherence … I guess an assumption that you could improvise because everyone knows the tune anyway. There’s an air of elitism in that. Is it “bringing Shakespeare to everyone”? Or is it playing to an educated crowd who know it enough to appreciate the changes? The Sunday Times compared Filter’s anarchic production, and said even that was more coherent in plot than Emma Rice’s production. I know the problem … Filter’s Twelfth Night was hilarious but incoherent in combining Viola and Sebastian if you didn’t know the play. I’ll refute that totally for this Dream. I was expecting some incoherence in plot because of that review and I detected none.
So Athens becomes London. There are a few additions. Years ago, Mark Rylance (Rita Quince says Mark Rylance, the first artistic director of The Globe, gave her the tambourine she carries) pointed out that Shakespeare’s comic actors were the great comedians of the day. They would certainly have improvised action, crowd repartee and slipped in topical references. Definitely authentic to shift words.
BUT SAY IT’S ALL LIKE THIS …
Most of my readers and correspondents are from outside the UK, and I know how much the chance of seeing Shakespeare in a near original setting means to them. Shakespeare almost certainly didn’t use medieval Scottish garb for Macbeth, or pre-Saxon gear for Lear, and no more than the odd token toga for Roman plays. The Elizabethans played in their contemporary clothes. Emma Rice seems to be saying that the space and setting is the important thing about the Globe and so play it in our contemporary gear. Yes, it’s a living theatre, not a museum, I agree … and yet the people I hear from abroad, do cherish the hope of seeing Shakespeare here, and sorry, they almost all want Elizabethan costumes, or (say) 13th century for King John or 15th century for Richard III. No, the Kings Men didn’t do it that way as far as we know. But I do hope they retain SOME productions which look Elizabethan / Jacobean to please the many foreign visitors.
View from the Globe courtyard: why a visit is magical for so many visitors.
BUT THE LAST WORD …
Emma Rice’s debut is a triumph.
OTHER REVIEWS OF A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM ON THIS BLOG:
- A Midsummer Night’s Dream – RSC 2011
- A Midsummer Night’s Dream – Headlong 2011
- A Midsummer Night’s Dream – Filter 2011
- A Midsummer Night’s Dream – Selladoor 2013
- A Midsummer Nights Dream – Handspring 2013, Bristol
- A Midsummer Night’s Dream – Grandage 2013
- A Midsummer Night’s Dream – Globe 2013
- A Midsummer Night’s Dream – Propellor 2013
- A Midsummer Night’s Dream RSC 2016, ‘A Play for the Nation’ at Stratford
- A Midsummer Night’s Dream RSC 2016 Revisited
- A Midsummer Night’s Dream – BBC TV SCREEN version 2016
- A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Bristol Old Vic Theatre School, 2016
- A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Bath Theatre Royal, 2016
ZUBIN VARLA on this blog
Measure For Measure, The Young Vic, 2015 (Duke Vincentio)
EMMA RICE ON THIS BLOG
The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk