Emma Rice’s new production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream already provoked a reaction during its previews, with Professor Michael Dobson at the University of Birmingham suggesting that the hallowed Elizabethan space was being turned into a “sixth form disco”. Aside from the fact that Dobson was obviously blessed with a better standard of invite than those to the cringe-worthy snogging-and-cider small town discos I received age 15, he was responding to the serious point that regular Globetrotters have had their feathers ruffled by Rice’s installation of additional lighting, speakers and even – shock! – neon signage. It seems, they say, out of keeping with the point of the Globe which is, in their minds, to preserve an historic replica of an Elizabethan theatre and perform the Complete Works in exactly the manner they have always been staged.
This attitude to Shakespeare is indicative of a wider approach to the arts and history that sees preserving the work of its heroes (and limited number of heroines) in untouched wholesomeness as a mark of respect. So we get served perfectly pickled vegetables, beautiful in their marbled completeness, yet despite their beauty they carry with them a faint hint of vinegar. By preserving, by saying that this work was, and is, only Elizabethan, supporters of this view actually do Shakespeare a great disservice because they are saying that his works were only relevant to one specific time when presented in one specific way.
With this flamboyant new take on A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Rice has taken those same old vegetables, pummelled them to death with a meat hammer and served up kimchi. It fizzes, it’s hot, at times it tastes like a little too much, but ultimately it is glorious and, like English cuisine, you know things are much improved by this new introduction. In doing so she pays the greatest respect to Shakespeare – in a similar manner to many of the films on display in the Complete Walk – by proving that they possess a chameleonic ability to always have continued relevance.
Apart from upsetting the neighbours by turning the new amps up to 11, Rice’s production stacks dynamite under traditional portrayals in a number of ways. Gender becomes fluid, homosexuality is celebrated and light-up, glittery trainers really do seem like a desirable fashion choice. Whilst the message towards gay relationships is foregrounded, there are also more subtle choices made regarding mixed-race marriage and – once again on the sartorial front – the excellent choice of a playsuit over a bridal gown.
Interspersed with song and dance, A Midsummer Night’s Dream is alive with colour. In perfect timing for Cinco de Mayo we get garlands of marigolds falling from the doorways, confetti in pinks fluttering from the sky and floating white orbs that are as buoyant as the production itself. It’s a happy mishmash of references, with a general theme of Bollywood and an Indian wedding running throughout.
Katy Owen – the wearer of the disco-feet trainers – is a crazy club kid Puck, terrorising the audience with mischief, but showing a desperate need to be liked when confronted with the identity-confusing mistake in the forest. Meow Meow [did not this name on the cast list give preview attendees a slight clue that this might not be your grandma’s Shakespeare?!] is deliciously Cruella, only with complete sexual abandon, in her performance as Titania. Anjana Vasan as Hermia is the archetypal undergrad in geek chic glasses and Hunter wellies for festival season.
The message that this is Shakespeare un-done is never clearer than in the costume design of Moritz Junge. Doublets, long skirts and all the finery of the Virgin Queen’s era are literally slashed to pieces. Ruffs are worn like proud yokes and Meow Meow totters like a burlesque ballerina in sugar-plum pink coated in a fine layer of dirt.
Given her previous work with Kneehigh, the Globe must have known what they were getting themselves in for with Rice. The aforementioned Complete Walk films and Paapa Essiedu as Hamlet currently at the RSC in Stratford suggest that A Midsummer Night’s Dream should not be viewed completely in isolation as the work of one eccentric director. Rather it implies that this is an organisation that should be celebrated for its bold and liberal choices.
When Lyn Gardner labelled Jamie Lloyd’s contentious Doctor Faustus as “lewd, crude and essential for the West End,” she hit on a vital point. This type of brashness, this daring in the face of traditional theatre, should be celebrated even on the occasions where the end result is less than successful to most people’s tastes. Without people with intentions like Rice we would still be in a country where – with reference to yesterday – women can’t vote and – with reference to the production – homosexuality is illegal.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream shows a complete disregard to the protocol of 1590 to the same degree that it shuns the protocol of 1950. Instead of the insular, preservationist approach, this is a production made with modern and global perspectives at its heart. A welcome and beautiful start to a new era.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream is on until 11th September 2016. Click here for tickets.