Walking down the stairs of the Globe’s East Tower during the interval of A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream, I listened in on someone asking their companion what they thought of it so far. “It’s good. I thought it was going to be, you know, traditional.”
At what point is it, I wonder, that a Shakespeare production becomes non-traditional? Is it when lighting gets a bit flashy? With genderweird casting? With actors wearing trainers? Does a committee come together and agree if what’s been put before them is traditional or not, and do they take into account what the director, perhaps, has said on their take and intentions for the work? Or is it when the performers start rapping or something?
Sean Holmes’ production begins with the Hackney Colliery Band (with tuba, drums, trumpet, trombone and saxophone) and a piñata. Three children are brought out of the audience to beat this piñata down, which introduces us to both the element of audience participation throughout, which manages to be funny and engaging rather than a terror or a bit embarrassing, and to Jean Chan’s colourful, exuberant design.
The only characters in monochrome are the lovers and Hermia’s father – and even their Athenian garb is weird and striking: Comme des Garçons-esque courtwear with monstrous, gill-like frills. Everyone and everything else is neon and bright, the fairies like piñatas come to life with disconcertingly Minionish eyes, even though some have two of them; Oberon (Peter Bourke) and Titania (Victoria Elliott) in grand Elizabethan dresses crossed with Mardi Gras drag. The Mechanicals wear clothes we’d recognise, but in a loud, brash assortment. Streamers rustle overhead.
As Helena, Amanda Wilkin is an effortless charmer; she’s perhaps the easiest part to have fun with, witty but always on the back foot, spurned by Ciaran O’Brien’s peevish Lysander, and Wilkin’s flailing, exasperated gestures could wring laughs out of anyone. Faith Omole gets the shorter (sorry!) end of the stick as Hermia, but darts about in mounting panic and shines as she rebuffs Lysander’s (the very funny Ekow Quartey) attempts to put the moves on her in the forest. They and the other cast members all take on the part of Puck between them, sometimes bickering, one-upping each other, so that his mistake becomes the fault of one of the “Pucks”.
Jocelyn Jee Esien’s Bottom trips over himself in excitement like labrador puppies tumbling down the stairs. In his ass’s costume, he looks like a cross between Where The Wild Things Are’s monsters and a teddy bear, dipping into pretentious French and languorously making out with Elliott’s Titania in a beflowered bin. It’s a stranger choice perhaps to have Bottom often descend into very panto modern references tenuously related to what’s being said. My instinct is that these shouldn’t be what the audience find funniest in your production – she can get everyone on side without them.
Miraculously, I could only spot two counts of actors thrusting furiously (to denote that Shakespeare is BAWDY), while a lot of fun is had with the Mechanicals’ play of Pyramus and Thisbe at the end. There’s always delight in stage blood detonated badly, and in watching the poor audience member chosen to play the part of Starveling, prompted with his lines and embraced by the rest of the cast.
Elliott’s turn as Hippolyta does the brave thing in addressing her status as the defeated enemy-bride of Theseus, but it introduces a darkness missing everywhere else in this production, and quickly ameliorated as there isn’t really a place for it here. She’s delivered onstage initially in a large package which has to be signed for, with FRAGILE printed on the box and on the tape over her mouth. A point is made of her very few lines – at first, she reads them from cards held up to prompt her, horrified. Soon she seems to be a bit creeped out at the most at her predicament; she exhorts Hermia with a warrior’s grunt, and later seems resigned to drinking her fate away in quiet consternation. She snogs Bottom with abandon in the end, leaving Theseus a bit bereft on his nuptial night, and maybe that’s enough for this Dream – maybe that’s as far as she can go.
The temptation to go eerie which so many Dreams fall victim to is entirely avoided here, despite occasional dips into Yoruba or Welsh almost-solemnity which do surprise the audience a little – they’re moments of magic, or something approaching that, for the characters, but pleasingly unexplained. Just one part of the fullness onstage.
I do wonder how non-traditional you can really make this one. This production doesn’t feel edgy for the sake of it, or even new in all its choices, but still. Chances are, Dream might be the Shakespeare you’ve seen the most (like me), in which case the prospect of having to laugh at its jokes again – the ones which tend to be emphasised to convince young people, especially, that Shakespeare is fun! – feels like a bit of an undertaking. But the glee with which the company throw themselves into the story (and sometimes the audience), James Fortune’s buoyant composition throughout and the charisma of the central performers is consistently disarming. The jury might be out on how traditional this all is, but there’s such a pleasure in seeing things done well.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream is on at Shakespeare’s Globe until 13th October 2019. More info and tickets here.