“Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.”
Make no mistake. Emma Rice is ruling the roost at Shakespeare’s Globe, defiantly, boldly, aggressively.
Her burlesque-pantomime version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream kicks off her inaugural Wonder season there in a blaze of multi-cultural, gender and sexuality diverse, sensual and scenery chewing impertinence. A wry reference to Mark Rylance having gifted a mandolin is the only link to the past: the shadow cast by Dominic Dromgoole has been dispersed in a whirl of glitter, fabulousness, and an almost Bollywood aesthetic.
At the end of Act One, a slightly scared, slightly horny Bottom, his head that of an Equus style donkey, but draped with ribbons and flowers, bemoans to the audience:”She’s mental“. No surprises – that’s not Shakespeare but Rice, ostensibly a remark about Titania, but, more likely, a comment about how critics might be feeling about Rice. Later, in the Mechanicals’ play after the weddings, a distressed Starveling rebukes Theseus: “Why is everyone so obsessed with text“. Once again, Rice speaking very clearly to critics and those who might relish/cherish Shakespeare’s language.
Certainly, Rice has chutzpah. And more than a soupçon of cultural arrogance.
I doubt there has ever been A Midsummer Night’s Dream quite like this before – anywhere. It’s raucous, randy and rowdy. Physical comedy and absurdist idiocy replaces, for the most part, any sense of lyrical beauty or textual wonder. Muscular, quirky dances; insinuating, intoxicatingly breathy music spun from a sitar, electric guitar, harp and keyboards; pop cultural references and in-gags; lots of tongue action, some choreographed; Carry On moments; much underwear on display; a Single Ladies routine; extreme licence with Shakespeare’s text, not limited to changed genders, cut passages and modern interpolations.
If it sounds like the theatrical version of Eton’s Mess, that’s about right. Impressive at the start, with many sweet and appealing parts, but, after a while, slightly cloying.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream depends on Magic. Magic in performance, magic in the language; the magic of love. Rice replaces magic here with wonder. It’s a clear and deliberate choice and once you understand it, accept that this is not a heartfelt insightful production, but a noisy wondrous one, an over-exuberant overindulgence – it is easy to accept it and go with the flow.
Rice tells the story cleanly and clearly. It is easy to follow the intricacies of Shakespeare’s plot. The biggest change, making Helena a man, Helenus, works surprisingly well. And by permitting Lysander to cheekily pinch Helenus’ bottom in the opening scene, Rice lays a seed which takes sprout when Lysander is enchanted and drugged into loving Demetrius. It’s not just talk of Hoxton and Hipsters which makes the fluid sexuality of the three romantic male leads believable and amusing.
There is a sort of fusion of sensibilities at play: Peter Pan meets Tim Burton by way of an Indian wedding a la Bollywood, with a touch of David Bowie (musically and in terms of sexual politics) and Benny Hill. Shakespeare does not get much of a look in – indeed, everything is added on top of Shakespeare, augmenting and altering it almost beyond recognition.
Partly, that is the work of Tanika Gupta, dramaturg and lyricist (there are a lot of songs here, most utterly forgettable but curiously potent in the moment). Börkur Jónsson’s impressionistic set assists: big, white, globes fill the air and they are accompanied by green tubes of slinky material – providing a fecund forestry feel to the Globe. New lighting rigs allow Simon Baker a freedom and precision in the lighting of which he takes full advantage. A sudden red pulse of light represents a magical kiss/awakening; a proper spotlight allows focus like never before in this space.
Moritz Junge provides costumes: modern dress, including a leather jacket offsetting garish boxers, for the quartet of lovers; faux blue collar uniforms for the low level bureaucrats that form the Mechanicals; Fairies garbed in some strange fusion of gothic, punk, new romantic, gypsy and drag queen apparel; an Onassis aura for Theseus and his Jackie O/Callas/LuPone hybrid diva consort, Hippolyta. Despite the Steptoe and Son grab bag of colours, fabrics and styles, there is an all encompassing vision – and it’s pretty. When the lovers strip and robe for their weddings, there is an undeniable joy in the atmosphere, accentuated by their almost regal hotch-potch of bridal garb.
Stu Barker provides fresh compositions to underscore activities onstage. There is no Early Music sensibility here; the vibe is haunting, modern, chilled and slightly funky-sexy – Barry White on Sitar and Harp. The whole effect is as far away from Globe fare of the last decade and classic/modern Shakespeare in general as one could imagine.
Curiously, given Rice’s well publicised belief that Shakespeare is akin to “cultural medicine” the sections of the play where Rice meddles least are the ones which work most successfully. These revolve around the quartet of lovers: Hermia and Lysander, Demetrius and Helenus. In these scenes, the actors are permitted to properly engage with the language, using it to establish character and prod emotional responses.
Edmund Derrington is a terrific, sexy and love struck Lysander. He positively shakes with emotion in the opening scene, so desperate is he for the love of his beloved Hermia. His denunciation of Demetrius’ secret love for Helenus seems more about letting them be together, in the love that scares Demetrius, than spite.
Derrington handles the verse with crackling energy, completely engaged. When he is drugged in the forest, his imposed adoration for Helenus rings true, amusingly so. As does his puppy like, boxer short led attempted seduction of Hermia when they first escape into the forest. With a body as carefully defined as his character, and clear, ringing tones that seduce the soul, Derrington is a triumph.
Hermia is a difficult role but Anjana Vasan makes it seem a glittering Jewel. Making her rival for Demetrius a man instantly removed any prospect of Dynasty like cat fights in the forest; instead Vasan establishes firmly her warmth and love for her gay best friend, Helenus, so that when Oberon intervenes in the forest the dynamic is fresh and funny. Vasan has terrific chemistry with Derrington (and he with her) and she makes her astonishment at Demetrius’ pursuit of her more about him than her, rightly given his status as unhappy, closeted gay social climber.
Rice, however, creates difficulties for Vasan’s Hermia where Shakespeare did not. In the fight in the forest, Lysander here venomously calls her an ugly bitch. It’s a brutally shocking moment. Despite her grace and intelligence, and notwithstanding countless other textual additions, Hermia never gets a moment of apology for this from Lysander. It is a credit to Vasan that, despite this, Hermia does not come across as a fool or a victim. Naive and tender, wrapped in sparky defiance and a nice line in comical dance routines, Vasan is splendid.
Partly because of the strength of the others in the quartet, Ncuti Gatwa never really shines as Demetrius. He conveys the sense of troubled inner conflict well enough, but he is not nimble enough vocally or physically for the dexterous demands made of him here. Too many words are swallowed, too many phrases denied proper shape, and too much comic business is slightly blunter than it ought be. Still, Gatwa is never awful, and his bright smile and winning spirit overcomes much.
Rice’s greatest triumph turns out to be the canny casting of Ankur Bahl as the male, gay version of Helena, Helenus. Bahl is easily the star of this show, embracing every aspect of the role with unrelenting brio and charming skill. He never stops – from his first, near silent whimper as Demetrius demands to marry Hermia, which completely sets up his character as Helenus, to his exuberant, ecstasy filled dance at the combined weddings, at the end of the production, which is the definition of happiness.
Bahl makes Helenus real and, happily, uses the beauty of the verse to do it. There are no false notes, Bahl revels in the language and its possibilities. He obviously doesn’t find the verse medicinal but inspirational. His Helenus is flighty, fractured and flirty – but utterly in love with Demetrius. It’s a spirited, convincing and inspiring performance which soars and soars.
Also soaring, literally, is Meow Meow’s vibrant and intoxicating Titania who spends a deal of time flying, or ascending to and descending from the heavens. Carnal, childish and captivating, this Titania is gold-plated fairy royalty. Sex is her oxygen, as is comedy. There is a delicious moment when she instructs Groundlings to remove her high heels and gets snappy when they take too long, and an inspired bit of business as she strips off layer after layer of stockings as she prepares to consummate her drugged-up love for a near terrified Bottom (the wonderful Ewan Wardop). She is wholehearted in her absorption of the essence of the character and, although much of her dialogue is cut, what she has is delivered with formidably sensuous skill.
Meow Meow also delivers a superb diva in the form of the Hollywood starlet type Hippolyta. Here, she is grand, aloof and condescending – but you can see the hot lava just underneath the surface. Much more obscure, and difficult to like or care about, is the quite odd take given to Oberon/Theseus by Zubin Varla who struggles with the language and who seems detached from everything except the most obvious sexual comedy. There is an unpleasant, predatory sexual violence bubbling underneath his Oberon which is out of place with the rest of the production.
As Puck, Katy Owen wields a water pistol with gunslinger zeal and plays with the Groundlings as some sort of near deranged punk Tinkerbell. It’s a very energetic performance, spirited even, but it lacks charm and beauty. Verse is abandoned for vice.
On the other hand, Wardop is a splendid Bottom, all self-deluded Alpha Male, constantly preening and showing off, but constantly falling flat. He makes the verse work as the sinewy spine of his character and adds physical comedy and schoolboy underwear acting to ice his particular cake of comedy. He is funny and sweet – and the possibility that he will not satisfy Titania when she takes him rings true, charging that scene with a particular, unusual, energy.
Most of the Mechanicals are played as women, which works perfectly well except in the case of Flute/Thisbe because a deal of the humour inherent in Thisbe comes from him being a man playing a girl. Alex Tregear was an eccentric Snug, but as a whole, given the over-the-top activities elsewhere, the Mechanicals do not provide the zesty comedy here.
This is a long version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream (three hours) and song and dance adds time to proceedings. Some of the songs go on for too long and some of the dances are too alike, in spirit and execution, to justify their length but, generally speaking, Choreographer Etta Murfitt does fine, feisty work. The final delightful celebratory dance is visually enchanting, alive with spirit and joy.
For all the ideas and energy that Rice stuffs into her re-imagining of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and there are many (the Man on the Moon for instance), what works best of all here is Shakespeare’s verse in the hands of the four lovers. The fairy side of things is not nearly as magical, although it is endlessly diverting. And that’s the true wonder.