Review of A Midsummer Night’s Dream at The Globe, London
And so I’m wafted along the wobbly bridge with London twinkling all around me, a round dream the size of a globe. Tonight’s production has me under its spell, that feeling of complete helpless joy, the stuff of carnival and bacchanal, so loud and yet so soft. I’ll go anywhere, believe any trick now, after all life is but a dream…
This year’s production of MSND at the Globe is a carnival themed beam of joy that should light up every heart on the planet. It passed the Globe’s acid test – made standing, for 3 hours not only bearable but thoroughly enjoyable, for hundreds of people from the 4 corners of the real globe. It made us all feel alive and happy to be sharing this pop legend of a play with the actors, as if we’d all been drugged by Puck. And only cost a fiver! As Michelle Terry, the Artistic Director says, ‘Let’s reimagine what is possible when individuals come together across difference, in a shared space, a shared light, a shared experience’.
And indeed we did. Thanks to the brass band and various other playful: the “moonshine-Lamp was supplied by a real, live, audience member, Puck was a part seamlessly passed round all the cast, darting among us like a fire baton and master Quince, the director of the amateur play-within- the-play, was an MC and DJ complete with carnival float.
We feel like anything could happen; indeed, we might suddenly find ourselves onstage or falling in love with the person in front of us and out of love with our supposedly ‘real’ lover.
Midsummer Night’s Dream was written over the same 2 years that Shakespeare wrote both Romeo and Juliet and Love’s Labour’s Lost. And so, during this period, we see him lead us into Love’s labyrinth of dramatic possibility, from farce to tragedy, with MSND a trippy sleep, somewhere deep in a daze between head and heart.
The text was jerked up with improv that shouldn’t work but does, marvellously. A handful of people left, maybe they were tourists who’d come to see men in tights pretending to be Tudors, “Shame on them” I hear Shakespeare tut, this is how it’s meant to feel – lost in the woods, the magical psychedelia that panic brings, the uncontrollable fits of fantasy, the rabbit holes that our waking brains close off – this is Theatre, and tonight it drew us in, showed us ourselves, yet again, in a new form, yet again, unimaginable, fantastical, farcical, ridiculous even, but somehow real and true and totally disarming, totally free from gender, race, sexuality – rainbow upon rainbow of sound and word and dance. As the inimitable Bottom says:
“I have had a dream, past the wit of man to say what the dream was. Man is an ass if he go about to expound this dream”
And so, if you are a half-assed critic/punter who sniffs and questions all sorts of things, like the fact that we were all asked to sing “Dancing in the moonlight” and there were jokes about Jamaica, and all sorts of ‘woke’ extras where added – know that this is exactly how the play was performed in Shakespeare’s day and for centuries after.
Indeed, shortly after the first production, it was put on as an opera and was later reshaped for 18th century ears by Mendelssohn. And so it’s right and proper for the sound- track to be what we are listening to now – The play is nothing if not eccentric, new, Avant-Guard, decidedly ‘outre’, with 2 cheeky fairy fingers up to the rules. Indeed, after one of the earliest productions the chief producer was put in the stocks wearing Bottom’s ass’s head because it was too bawdy.
This play lends itself to being cut up and reassembled in whatever parts we need at any given point in time. It will always retain its integrity, as if by magic – anything goes except the boring and the unimaginative – these two are unforgivable and must be avoided at all costs.
I would say, however, that it was all light and no darkness, that dark madness that the play is capable of, as we’ve seen in this year’s somewhat flat production in Regents park and the Young Vic’ austere 2017 production (the stage was mud, the fairies tramps):
But maybe this focus on the bright and jolly interpretation is because we need a lift, we need an antidote to bad news, we need some reasons to be cheerful.
Although light was the major note, we had just enough darkness to keep us grounded, with the added African magic spells and Notting Hill carnival threads. These chime with the historical and contemporary use of this play as a tool for defiance by oppressed cultures as varied as Native American, Polish Jew, Apartheid South Africa and Australian Aboriginal.
And now, in these days of climate change, the play reveals a new depth – Titania’s speech about nature being topsy-turvy – this was the moment, the passage or two in every Shakespeare play, that speaks directly to you, in your exact moment in time, and we are in 2019, when ‘toxic odours’ do indeed pervade our globe and the weather is too inconsistent to say if it’s winter or spring:
“The spring, the summer The chiding autumn, angry winter change
Their wonted liveries; and the mazed world,
By their increase, knows not which us which.”
The harvest at the time Shakespeare was writing had been one of the worst in living Elizabethan memory, and so, as we have now managed to wreak on ourselves, “a progeny of evils”, we can perhaps share the feeling, as 21st century extinction rebellion Elizabethans, that the original hungry and exhausted audience must have had when they heard these lines than any other generation.
The rest of the performances seem to have come and gone, as a wonderful bopping dream, with perhaps the liveliest, most charming cast the globe has seen. Helena and Hermia’s catty face-off was one of the most realistic portrayals of their relationship we’ve seen on the modern stage. There can be a tendency for these two to be a kind of wedge parts, propping up the others, but here they shone out, front and centre.
If the play was a glittering carnival float, we were on it, with them – friends welcomed into their clap-along, ding-a-ling, sing along good time.
This was a spectacle unapologetic panto, of irresistible misrule, where a bright flower-crusted turquoise bin serves as a bower fit for Her Majesty, and who knows? Our glittery Faery Queene might invite us in for a cuddle and a sprinkle?
There was a nod to Peter Hall’s ground-breaking, sell-out ground-breaking production,
where Titania, queen of the fairies was dressed as the 16th century Queen Elizabeth the First. Here we see Titania a panto version of Hippolyta, dressed as our very own hunting shooting fishing, Queen Elizabeth, and Theseus as a camp Duke of Edinburgh in pink army dress.
All this and somehow, respectfully. I must say, however that some of the lines were lost in the daze of bright colours and music, that the poetry inherent in the lines was sometimes overdressed and bloated by the excesses of this modern production. That said, we looked up at the stars and at my fellow trippers and thought “We are laughing, We are actually giggling from tingling knees up, standing here, laugh-sway-whistling along…
And so were they, probably, 500 years ago, at this play, and then, like us, they left the brightness of their piqued imaginations and returned to the grey world of frowns and people who aren’t dreamers or dreaming, who haven’t been drugged by buzzy bee Pucks. The central line was a massive come down. Time to go, go back to sleep….
A Midsummer Night’s Dream runs at the Globe Theatre until the 13th October 2019.
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