A few days ago, I got into a discussion about the relevance of Shakespeare in the 21st century. It was a long, winding, and pretty passionate chat, which was surprising because I didn’t think I felt strongly either way. Shakespeare has always just been there, inextricable from, and unconsciously influential to my understanding of this world. A bit like Christianity. Or colonialism. His influence is so invisible that I’d never really thought about what it meant, or why I zone out of most Shakespeare productions or why, even once I’ve managed to piece together a play’s overall story at its 165th minute, I’m often left with a sour taste in my mouth.
This conversation helped me see that I was part of the problem. I was going to Shakespeare plays expecting them to teach me something morally useful, to in some way present necessary alternatives to the ills of the world. I would have this expectation because, more often than not, the theatre or company would frame their production as such:
MEASURE FOR MEASURE: NOW more than ever…
TAMING OF THE SHEW: what it can tell YOU about #metoo
But what remains relevant about Shakespeare’s work is not its dated (like… centuries old) ideas on gender; it’s the vivacity of his characters, how alive and present they can feel, and the ability with which he manages to make them accessible.
Dominic Hill’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream opens on a raucous party. Rachel Canning’s design of a large dinner table, combined with the off-the-high-street theme of costume design, feels like a decked-out community hall-cum-event space; and it works. It instantly situates the audience in some place familiar, the closing tableau of the scene feeling reminiscent of a Hollyoaks shot. And that’s a genuine compliment. If A Midsummer Night’s Dream is anything, it is the precursor to our drama-filled soaps of today, and a premier example of our appetites for reality TV-type gaslighting and hijinks.
And in that vein, here is how the Open Air Theatre’s production is in conversation with the nation’s beloved Love Island. Hermia, played by Gabrielle Brooks, and Lysander, played by Michael Elcock are both black. Helena, played by Remy Beasley, and Demetrius, by Pierro Niel-Mee, are white. All four play their parts with the candour and energy of millennial lovers, the depth and fickleness of their young love coming off the page and into a world where Instagram-able reactions and viral memes function as communication. The unintentional fallout of this interracial love quadrangle is how close Hermia’s situation felt to that of Samira Mighty and Yewande Biala, (I promise I’m not taking the piss), two black women who came to symbolise some of the overlooked realities of dating in the UK, specifically the ways in which black women are often deemed less desirable, and more disposable, than our lighter and whiter-skinned counterparts. After Lysander and Demetrius have been charmed to have eyes only for Helena, the abuse they inflict on Hermia is genuinely painful to watch. And so once the spells have been lifted toward the end of the play, and Lysander’s eyes return to his original love, how Brooks plays her immediate reaction, which is to turn her back to her love and not accept him readily, feels apt. This moment of direction was effective in highlighting the plot’s progressive limitations.
There were, however, many moments where the desire to prioritise accessibility and relatability felt agonisingly self-conscious. Part of Simon Baker and Jay Jones’ sound design included bumping House interludes, presumably to mimic the soundscape of a North London warehouse party? It didn’t quite work for me, and I wasn’t entirely sure how those sounds served our placement in those moments of the story. And then there were the fairies, who were rendered as ghoulish, abstract, and almost like they belonged somewhere in the Game of Thrones universe. I wasn’t entirely convinced by their pop-locking and staccato jigging, as I was unsure whether they were to be read as sincere. The fairies also communicated entirely in sign language, which while being a welcome move toward creating a more accessible show, when paired with their other traits came across as almost othering, particularly given that only their sections of the show were signed.
Where this production really succeeds is in its commitment to what I earlier deemed to be the continued relevance of Shakespeare. These characters felt alive: in their actions, their cadence, and the ways they worked off each other, they felt knowable and ultimately believable. Amber James’ Hippolyta glides across the stage, and verbally disrespected her disappointing partner Oberon, like a real bad b**** would; I only wished for moments where she literally pulled him along on a leash. Elcock embodied the young male emotion of Lysander so perfectly, I at once wanted to slap and coddle him. Beasley’s Helena was shrill and unsure of herself, in the way that women consistently gaslit by men tend to be. And in the scene towards curtains where the couples watch a play within the play, Oberon (Kieran Hill) and Demetrius’ boisterous interjections are so good at taking up space, you can almost taste the white male privilege!
I was really taken by the company of actors of said play within the play, too. Myra McFadyen’s Puck, Gareth Snook’s Quince, Tomi Ogbaro’s Snug and Lee Mengo’s Snout create a loveable and diverse company who seem to find genuine community in each other. Wokoma as Bottom steals every scenes she is in, maintaining an energy so punchy it is as if she is coming up with her lines herself in the moment. She is the undeniable spark of the show, a real pleasure to watch and be charmed by.
There are currently three productions of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in London alone — make of that what you will. While the Open Air Theatre’s rendition has its flaws, it certainly earns your attention. After all, what could be more culturally relevant, more morally imperative, more ‘now more than ever’, than invoking Casa Amor?