The first time I saw a show at Shakespeare’s Globe was back in October when I saw Richard II. It was exactly how I expected Shakespeare to be performed: typical costume of the era, no gimmicks, live music, bare set. A few weeks ago I saw my second production: Emma Rice’s direction of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Now, I know Rice had been planning for her “Wonder” season to be one which shakes Shakespeare up in many ways, and to be almost a spectacle, but I certainly did not expect THIS.
Hanging from seemingly the sky were white spheres, a spectacle for the eyes. In addition to these, there were three white tables in the yard (which the actors would use as extra staging), and even newly-installed lighting. The Globe had not seen this before. Some audience members were quaking in the boots. But me? I was astonished but excited, thrilled to see such a change and to see Shakespeare in a completely different way (one could literally say “light”).
The space was dressed as a Bollywood wedding, full of bright colours, and the soundtrack included a sitar and a Bollywood feel, most likely based on the Indian Prince Titania and Oberon fight about. Much like the space, the entire play had also been changed. The text was spliced and moulded (“Why are you all so obsessed with text anyway?”), and a few modern lines inserted. But this did not dampen my enjoyment at all. The scenes most faithful to the original text were those of the lovers, making their oaths seems that much more truthful, and bringing out the beauty of Shakespeare’s words. The four actors all shone.
Anjana Vasan (Hermia) is a delight, playing her so sweet and honest, with a touch of the nerd. Her love for Lysander (Edmund Derrington) rings pure, and the friendship between her and Helenus (Ankur Bahl) genuine. Derrington as Lysander is equally wonderful, making his way through his verses with utmost sincerity, as well as having a gorgeous signing voice. There was no doubt that this couple were made for each other. Due to the prominence of the other three lovers, poor Demetrius (Nctui Gatwa) unfortunately didn’t get much opportunity to shine, though he fit into the quartet very well. My favourite performer of the evening, however, has to be Bahl as Helenus, the male incarnation of Helena. This change in gender from Rice is a stroke of genius. We need more LGBT+ representation onstage, and this was the perfect opportunity as it added more depth to Helena’s character, and also made the love ring true, rather than just the cat-fights seen often in productions. Bahl is a joy to watch, portraying both the sweet lover, and one who would fight for him. His delivery of “Though she be but little she is FIERCE” was fabulous, and his little character quirks such as the first aid kit were delightful additions.
The play ran for three hours, which is quite long considering most of the text was cut, and this was due to the myriad of musical numbers. They were great, and well-choreographed, but often felt repetitive. I did wonder if I was watching “Dream: The Musical”. It felt like they were added in to both showcase the actors and try and add even more of the acid-trip vibe that Dream so often gives.
There was a lot more of this Carnivalesque to be had: Katy Owen wore light-up trainers and brandished a water gun as she flew around the stage as Puck, Bottom (Ewan Wardrop) showboated and preened as Pyramus, and Meow Meow as Titania commanded the stage as an almost washed-up-Diva, with a hilarious scene where, getting frisky with Bottom, she had to remove many layers pairs of tights. Though there aren’t any villains in Dream as such (is the enemy just ourselves?), Zubin Varla’s Oberon/Theseus has a strange sexual tension bubbling underneath him and a hint of darkness and foreboding (when he drugs Titania he appears to rape her…). It’s very eerie to watch him and Puck engage.
Despite the repetitive dances from the fairies, the multitude of things happening, and some awkward choices of words (“ugly bitch”/”she’s mental”), what we do see her is a wondrous production of Dream. It is utterly hilarious and a feast for the eyes, and every single actor has their moment to shine. If you’re not sure about Shakespeare, think Shakespeare is boring and irrelevant, or you want to get your children into Shakespeare, this is the production to go to. It is Shakespeare completely and utterly transformed for the twenty-first century.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream is on at Shakespeare’s Globe, London, util September 11th