It is often said that at any given moment there is a Shakespeare play taking place somewhere in the world and this is probably no more true than it is in this big anniversary year. The sheer number of events connected with #Shakespeare 400 suggests that all the plays in the canon will be covered in one form or another in the UK alone; perhaps one of the most frequent to be so will be A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Several polls have been running asking respondents for their favourite Shakespeare play and those for The Stage, The Daily Telegraph and You Gov (why are You Gov running a poll on such a thing??) placed The Dream in the top three choices; this is reflected in the flood of productions of this play taking place in 2016.
Quite apart from our own A Midsummer Night’s Dream: A Play For The Nation which has been criss-crossing the country there are at least another three professional touring productions taking place (Rain or Shine Theatre Company, Chapterhouse Theatre Company and Illyria Theatre Company). Other one off productions are scheduled for Oxford, Cambridge, Bath and the Edinburgh Fringe. Trevor Nunn completes his bid to direct every Shakespeare play with a production in Ipswich which will feature local children playing Titania’s fairy train (now, I can’t think how they came up with that idea!). As variations you can see Benjamin Britten’s opera at either Glyndebourne or The Minack in Cornwall. For children there are “retellings” – Robin Goodfellow’s Amazing Travelling Show or To Dream Again. Heaven alone knows how many amateur companies will be putting on productions. You don’t even have to leave the comfort of your own home – the recent Russell T Davies version for the BBC is currently still available on iplayer and can be acquired as a paid download or purchased on DVD/Blue Ray. While I’m not aware of a collective noun for a group of productions of the same play, maybe I can suggest one – a dramglut.
In London alone we have and continue to be inundated with Dream productions. Already over and done are versions at the Pleasance and Lyric Hammersmith. Recently opened are a stripped down production at the Southwark Playhouse (7 actors playing 17 roles) and The Donkey Show: A Midsummer Night’s Disco (Shakespeare meets ‘80s dance moves) in Camden. Perhaps most bizarrely is the version by Sh*t Faced Shakespeare in which the audience randomly choose one of the actors to consume a quantity of alcohol. S/he is then turned loose to wreak havoc throughout the performance. I have to declare my hand here and say that I think the whole set up of this artistically questionable (maybe even morally reprehensible) but as the show has just announced an extension run I guess I may be in a minority there. Highest profile of all the London openings has been that of the production at The Globe on the South Bank. This marks the takeover of the theatre’s artistic directorship by Emma Rice and has drawn some very positive reviews while drawing a good deal of criticism from traditionalists. As the main London contender to our own offering I thought I should take a look.
The last time I went to the Globe theatre I tried my hand at being a groundling but this time I felt a little more comfort was in order – if the Globe’s hard wooden benches could ever be categorized as “comfortable”. I also thought an evening performance would be fun as the night drew in and the atmosphere changed. It certainly did towards the end of Act 4 when there was a torrential downpour! Although I had read some reviews and had some prior warning from Maria I don’t think I was quite ready for the sheer number of changes/additions/tinkerings with which I was presented. The whole look/feel of the production was a mash up (more a mish mash in my humble opinion) with contemporary lovers, Elizabethan punk fairies, Indian exoticism and the Mechanicals as Globe theatre stewards. Did this work? Not really. Too much of the kitchen sink approach for my liking (throw everything in and see what sticks).
Even more irksome was the approach to the text. OK there were cuts – no real problem with that but I was less satisfied with some of the insertions. Rita (rather than Peter) Quince’s opening audience briefing was fun but this was before the play proper began. Other than that there was just too much monkeying around with something that has worked perfectly well for four centuries. Redistributing lines and reordering the sequencing might have some merits but here it just seemed to be gratuitous. Changing all the Athens references to “London”, “Bankside” or “Hoxton” seemed to be about getting some cheap laughs rather than improving clarity. And I still don’t understand why we were treated to snatches of Beyonce and David Bowie, what an impersonation of Marilyn Monroe added to the mix or why Lysander’s song used the words from John Donne’s “To His Mistress Going To Bed” – after all Shakespeare clearly didn’t write much love poetry himself, did he?
One character I just found plain annoying – Puck, in hot pants, Elizabethan ruff, sparkly trainers and toting a water pistol. It was all meant to be playful but I felt it became intrusive and excessive; I have to say our own Puck (Lucy) handles a broadly similar approach with much more finesse and style. It didn’t help that Katy Owen playing the role doubled as Egeus. What was that all about? I can only assume it was a way of suggesting that Puck was also somehow directly responsible for the plight of the lovers.
So was it all bad? Far from it though it is in the nature of these things that the irritations tend to stick in the mind; there were many excellent moments which, had they been sustained, would have improved my view overall. I rated cabaret artist Meow Meow’s turn as Titania/Hippolyta; she had a very funny routine with several pairs of tights and literally went weak kneed at the sight of Bottom’s ass (both senses!) I also thought changing Helena to Helenus worked well and I certainly enjoyed the sometimes touching performance of Ankur Bahl – having said that it does seem slightly perverse when equal opportunity is such a concern, to have redesignated a key female Shakespearian role to someone male. The rest of the lovers did a sterling job, though I think Shakespeare put in enough (and funnier) insults about Hermia without resorting to calling her a “bitch” – the audience are intelligent enough to work that out for themselves without being told. The Bergomask/jig at the end of the play, however, was a thing of joy and another highlight was the ouzel cock song done as a George Formby pastiche – indeed the music throughout was a pleasure.
And what of the Mechanicals? I thought these were good performances all round though somewhat hampered by the general concept. One of their defining characteristics (their jobs) had been axed – no longer Bottom the weaver and Snug the joiner but Nick the Health and Safety officer and Joanna the cleaner. It worked having Bottom as the sole male but then I think our production has already proved that varying the Mechanicals’ gender need be no barrier to consistency. They found plenty of comedy in their roles though personally I found Pyramus and Thisbe an anticlimax. What should have been the comic highlight had been undermined by some of the earlier horseplay which I felt detracted from the overall arc of the play.
I’ve only ever seen one of Emma Rice’s productions before (her reimagining of Noel Coward’s Brief Encounter for Kneehigh Theatre) and thought it most enjoyable but I really don’t think you can necessarily take the same approach to Shakespeare. I enjoy a certain amount of invention around the text and I’m certainly as guilty as the next man of including things in my own performance which are definitely not in the original but our directors kept a firm grip on any excesses which I didn’t feel was always the case here. I thought too many aspects went just a bit too far and that things became a bit too arch, a bit too knowing, a bit too “hey, look at me, aren’t I clever?” I guess in the end I’m bound to be just a teensy bit biased but I think I know which production I prefer.
I think I probably need to go and see another Globe production soon – one of a play in which I don’t have such a vested interest and where I can look more dispassionately at the outcomes. It will be interesting to see how the Globe develops under Emma Rice’s leadership and maintains its status as a world class venue. Looking around the foyers during the interval there do seem to be a number of interesting and ambitious plans afoot. One which caught my eye was an MA in Shakespeare Studies offered jointly by the Globe and King’s College. What a fascinating follow up to this year’s experience that would be!
The production is now back in Stratford upon Avon. Click on the image below for details