Rock this ground: Shakespeare’s Globe’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream

This is celebrating Shakespeare in the truest possible way: come in, drink beer, shout at the stage, come and go as you please and get involved.
– Emma Rice

This morning I realised I’ve seen a dozen or so versions of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in the past thirteen years, either on stage, on video, or in a cinema. Without a doubt it is Shakespeare’s most evergreen play, in that its magic, beauty, strangeness and wonder never fades, and can withstand whatever a production throws at it. When Emma Rice was announced as the third artistic director of Shakespeare’s Globe in London last year, I was immediately excited to see what she would produce. Now, eighteen months later, as her first production at the Globe comes to a close, the BBC decided to live-stream the final performance of Rice’s Dream to all and sundry; playing at 6.30pm BST, I pulled an all-nighter and sat up in bed watching it at 3am Australian-time, watching the darkness encroach around the Globe as the sky grew light outside my window. If her first Dream is any indication, under Rice’s leadership the Globe is set to transcend the heavens of invention, if it hasn’t already done so straight off the bat.

Rice’s production of Cymbeline – for Kneehigh and the Royal Shakespeare Company in 2006 – was described variously as “coarsely reductive” and “most inventive”, and warned anyone expecting the see Shakespeare’s play to be “in for a rude shock.” Her other productions such as The Red Shoes brought an anarchic sense of play to the fore, while Brief Encounter married live performance with filmed inserts to beguiling effect. With her Dream, Rice returns to the terrain she ploughed with Cymbeline, and creates a vision of the play which enchants, unsettles, and warms in equal measure, and takes a welcome blowtorch to the Globe’s set-up and practices, and delivers a production which is a Dream in every sense you can imagine.
When the design for Rice’s production was revealed earlier in the year, purists had a field-day bemoaning the presence of balloons, a visible lighting rig (rather than a warm unchangeable wash of light), amplified sound, and other ‘unsightly presences.’ The Globe – as a theatre and a building first and foremost – has always been designed as a space to experiment with theatrical practices and styles, a willful deliberate working anachronism, from the Elizabethan original practices experiments which Mark Rylance advocated, to the freer and more diverse rhapsodies on a theme of Jacobethan theatre from Dominic Dromgoole’s tenure. Under Rice’s artistic directorship, it seems only fair that those boundaries should be redefined and renegotiated – ‘rock this ground,’ indeed. Rice seems to be asking, as indeed she should be, what is the Globe capable of? How much technology and machinery can you bring into the space before it starts to detract from the essential humanity of the bare stage? How can you take the lessons already learned in the Globe’s first nineteen years and extended them, use them in new ways to new effect? How might those lessons be renegotiated with new technologies and ideas? As Rita Quince says in her opening OH&S speech, “We’re all for original practices at the Globe, [but] please refrain from public urination and spreading syphilis.”
And so we come to Rice’s Dream. Taking her cue, like so many other productions, from Shakespeare’s text, Rice and her team of designers have envisioned a world with a heavy Indian-influenced aesthetic. But rather than try to find parallels within this context for each group of characters in their production (fairies, lovers, royalty, Mechanicals), they have cleverly used a wide-ranging pool of influences and styles to bring their collective Dream to its fullest, most intoxicating life. Theseus and Hippolyta drip money. Egeus is a hectoring pedant in a wheelchair, while the four lovers are modern London teenagers. Oberon, in an unlaced doublet patterned like an ocelot, is the grounded opposite to Titania’s leggy burlesquing Elizabeth I. Puck, positively rocks a doublet, ruff, gold hotpants, and light-up trainers, while the fairies are earthy punk-grunge creatures in tattered skirts, singlets, and teased hair (‘they’re four hundred years old,’ Rice says during her interval interview, ‘they’ve done everything, they’re absolutely wrecked!). The Mechanicals – our entrance point to the story and, in some respects, our guides through it – are dressed as Globe Stewards in t-shirts, aprons, and chinos. Above the stage in the heavens, a four-piece band sit, playing sitars, keyboards, drums, woodwinds, guitars, bass, and everything in between. In some respects, it almost shouldn’t work; but it’s this very logic that Shakespeare-via-Rice are defying, and by god it works a treat.
There’s a verve, a palpable swagger with which this production moves that it’s all you can do at times not to grin like a lunatic, a lover, or a poet. From the moment Rita Quince lets forth with ‘O for a muse of fire’ before launching into a garbled health-and-safety announcement, you know Rice is onto something. But it’s notuntil Hermia and Helenus let forth with a burst of Beyoncé’s ‘SingleLadies’ in the style of an Indian raga that your doubts are truly assuaged. With the help of dramaturg Tanika Gupta, Rice has changed references in the play to suit her London audience, to further make the play a Dream for us, here, now. In an interview, Rice stated “there’s no way that every line can still be relevant, in my opinion… There is a great case to be made for great editing, making the plays a little bit shorter and punching through the language that has stood the test of time and we do understand.” But these changes don’t just work because of topicality; they also work because they maintain the iambic pentameter of the verse, no small feat. References to Athens become ‘Bankside,’ the lovers are frequently referred to as ‘Hoxton hipsters,’ and Starveling makes a dig at Theseus’ very-literal reading of her performance of ‘Moonshine’ in the Mechanicals’ play: ‘Come on, mate. It’s a visual concept. How hard is it to understand? Why is everyone so obsessed with text?!’ By changing little lines (and changing Helena to Helenus), Rice and Gupta’s changes have created a new adaptation of Shakespeare’s play which doesn’t so much seem modern as positively Shakespearean.
I can’t enunciate adequately enough in words just how much this production made me sing. It’s rare to see a production this joyous and anarchic, this full of mayhem and wonder and, well, magic, that when it unfolds in front of you – even if it is on your laptop screen at four a.m. in the morning – it renders you unable to look away. Börkur Jónsson’s set is festooned with exotic marigold curtains over the doorways, while the stage is kept relatively clear; tables extend into the pit, making the audience guests at the wedding, an active and integral part of the proceedings. Moritz Junge’s costumes are a joyous riot of styles and influences, and seem reminiscent at times of Sandy Powell’s work crossed with something of the straight-up irreverent and seemingly-walked-off-the-street. Stu Barker’s music cascades and ripples through the wooden O, full of raga-inspired rhythms and motifs, improvised jams and structured full-bloodied melodies. Etta Murfitt & Emma Rice’s choreography brings out some gorgeous similarities between Elizabethan pavannes and Indian dance styles with wild hedonistic abandon. Victoria Brennan & Malcolm Rippeth’s lighting is rich, warm, and vibrant, and has more than a little touch of magic up its sleeve.
The cast are all fantastic in their roles, some doubling fairies and Mechanicals, and there is a shambolic sense of camaraderie here; a tangible spirit of adventure which mirrors the Mechanicals’ own sense of seriousness and play. Special mention to Katy Owens’ livewire Puck – she has so much energy you feel exhausted just watching her run around the stage, jumping off pillars, yelling and demanding the audience “clap me!”, making out with others, squirting some with her water pistol, or half-eating a banana and throwing the rest into the audience, applauding a catch; I don’t think there is a single moment in which Owens’ Puck is ever truly still. Tibu Fortes’ harp-playing eunuch on roller-skates glides silently onto the stage in a blink-and-you-won’t-register-it deviation from his fairy role. But it is Meow Meow’s Titania that charms the pants off Bottom (almost literally), and their banjo shoe-shuffle cabaret number in her bower is a gleeful giggling stroke of wonderment. This Titania is irreverent, sexy, and hypnotic, but she can also be vicious and snarky as the occasion arises; I’d love to see her take on that other Shakespearean beacon, Cleopatra, perhaps with Rice also at the helm of the barge.
There has been some critical backlash against the forcefulness of Rice’s joyfulness in this production, but for someone who apparently says she doesn’t know all that much about Shakespeare, you cannot fault the way she makes everything count here, nor the abandon with which she rifles through her toolbox of theatrical tricks. Yet even though the play is four hundred-years-old, and even though we know it inside-out-backwards-upside-down, this production makes it seem totally fresh, totally new, as though four hundred years have passed in the time it takes Puck to put a girdle round the Earth. It might not be as dark (literally, and metaphorically) as Julie Taymor’s Dream, or as crash-wallopingly-gloriously OTT as Russell T Davies’ recent version for the BBC, but it is as joyous and as raucous – as anarchic and bonkers – as it should be, and it is the first production I’ve seen from the Globe, in person or otherwise, where I understood every single thing that was going on. Maybe it was the fact this is my favourite play just about ever (certainly of Shakespeare’s), or maybe it was the thirteen year old nerd in me doing cartwheels, trying to keep up with Puck’s capricious giddiness, but I fucking loved it, every single streaming minute of it, and would happily watch it again tomorrow if I could.

‘Rock this ground,’ indeed.

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