Theatre: A Midsummer Night's Dream; after Independence

By Evans, Lloyd | The Spectator, May 21, 2016 | Go to article overview

Theatre: A Midsummer Night's Dream; after Independence


Evans, Lloyd, The Spectator


The Globe's new chatelaine, Emma Rice, has certainly shaken the old place up. It's almost unrecognisable. Huge white plastic orbs dangle overhead amid plunging green chutes like rainforest vines. The back wall is smothered in a blinding rampart of explosively coloured saffron petals. Up top, partially concealed by pillars, lurks a rock band togged up in a blend of Elizabethan casuals and modern gear. Presiding over everything is an Indian matriarch, seated in cross-legged solemnity, playing an electric sitar whose headstock (the bit with the tuning pegs) resembles a Fender bass. What are we supposed to make of this weird, druggy, space-age Bollywood mash-up? Nothing much. Except that Shakespeare belongs now, and then, and here and there, and everywhere. Which comes as a fantastic relief. What a stylish departure from the usual updates, which tend to drag the text, bound and gagged, up some anthropological avenue that turns out to be a dead end.

The show opens with a dig at the Globe's traditions. A crew of actors dressed as the officious stewards who enforce the theatre's self-imposed rules barge their way on stage and deliver a 'Bankside health and safety lecture'. We're warned of sunstroke (on a cold, cloudy evening), whose dangers are compounded by the fact that the main symptoms -- confusion and fatigue -- are indistinguishable from the normal human response to a Shakespeare play. Then there's a fire drill. The groundlings are told to form two wide alleys through which the actors may pass before anyone else can leave the burning building.

And so begins A Midsummer Night's Dream along with a vibrant score of toe-tapping music that offers a knowing commentary on the text. There are bursts of Bowie and Beyoncé, and snatches of George Formby and Marilyn Monroe, which add delicious feather-light suggestions and illuminations that link our culture with the Elizabethan age. It's wonderful stuff. The ensemble work, the visual exuberance, and the fun-loving spirit of the piece are astoundingly good. One example. The play features Shakespeare's deadliest attempt at farce: intoxicated Titania conceives an erotic desire for Bottom, who's dressed as a donkey. Nothing in this jape enlists our sympathy. We don't care for the quasi-bestial relationship. We don't care for Titania's predicament (because Titania drugged is not Titania). And we don't care for the donkey because his donkeyishness is a cowardly prank intended to humiliate a helpless woman. And invariably, when the gag falls flat, the players try to compensate with laborious attempts at comedy. …

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