As part of the BBC Culture in Quarantine season, we are offered a selection of Shakespeare’s plays performed at two of the UK’s most well known theatres for Shakespeare. Written in 1596, A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a regular feature in theatres’ Summer calendars for their Summer season. We have seen many adaptations of this play as theatres become more creative, but this version is like the making a cocktail, the ingredients can be the same, but it is how much of each ingredient that creates its individual flavour.
In Emma Rice’s first play as Artistic Director of The Globe, we were treated to a feast of energy and colour. The play positively buzzed with excitement as we experienced an adventurous modernised version of this much-loved play.
The play is introduced by the cleaning staff who warm up the audience ready to expect some fun. This was a nice touch and got the laughter flowing before the play began. Most of the play is set in a forest normally in Athens but this version appears to have an Indian vibe, possibly taken from the fact that Titania and Oberon had a trip to India before the time of the play.
Just to have a quick re-cap on the story, Theseus the Duke of Athens (Zubin Varla) and Hippolyta Queen of the Amazons (Meow Meow), are due to be married and Philostrate (Maggie Bain) the Duke’s master of ceremonies has been given the task of organising the four-day wedding festival. In the meantime, nobleman Egeus demands that Theseus make his daughter Hermia (Anjana Vasan) marry Demetrius (Ncuti Gatwa) (even though she loves Lysander) and if she refuses, she is either to be sent to a nunnery or to be put to death. Theseus gives her until his wedding to decide. Hermia and Lysander (Edmund Derrington) decide to elope and share this information with Helena, Hermia’s friend. Helena is in love with Demetrius who is also in love with Hermia, so as Demetrius pursues the eloping lovers, Helena follows. Once in the woods they are at the mercy of the fairies. King of the fairies Oberon (Zubin Varla) has fallen out with his Queen, Titania. He sends his sprite Puck to find an enchanted flower that when sprinkled onto a sleeping persons’ eyelids, its juice makes them fall in love with the first person they see. The other group of people in the woods are a group of actors rehearsing a play that they wish to perform at the wedding of the Duke of Athens. Confusion and mayhem follow as Puck sprinkles the eyes of Lysander instead of Demetrius (under Oberon’s orders), but the first person he sees is Helena not Hermia. He also sprinkles the potion onto Titania’s eyes and the first person she sees is Bottom (Ewan Wardrop) the ridiculous actor (who now has the head of an ass). All is put right, but the actors finally have to perform the play at the wedding.
Emma Rice’s previous experience in physical theatre is in evidence here, the movement is energetic, and the staging has been extended into the audience so that there is an inclusive feel. The Globe’s stage lends itself to audience inclusivity, but with the humour in this play the audience are cajoled into sometimes being a part of the proceedings. Some of the characters have taken on a slightly different version of themselves. Helena become Helenus as a gender swap with Ankur Bahl in the role who did not over embellish his character, which worked well within the overall razzmatazz of the rest of the play. Puck is also a role usually played by a man and the high spirited, naughty sprite was played by Katy Owen with a vivacity and cheekiness that lured the audience into this adventure.
At times, even though the update of the script by dramaturg Tanika Gupta worked well to keep the iambic pentameter, the visual energy sometimes took away some of the more tender moments and could jeopardise the development of the characters. This is a play about love and even though it is a comedy, this adaptation has taken it a step further than Shakespeare’s words alone alluded. Whilst it is extremely enjoyable to watch and laugh out loud funny, the exaggerated humour may come at the expense of Shakespeare’s unique language, which can be drowned out by this play’s eccentricities.
As a stand-alone play this would offer an entertaining evening which I am sure would have been enjoyed enormously by the audience at The Globe. Purists may take a slightly different view.
To watch the play, go to https://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episodes/p089zds8/culture-in-quarantine-shakespeare
Reviewer: Caroline Worswick
Reviewed: 29th July 2020
North West End UK Rating: ★★★★