A Midsummer Night's Dream - Shakespeare's Globe 2008

Wednesday, 21 May, 2008

Next up in this year's season at the Globe is Shakespeare's ever-popular magical comedy that seems almost synonymous with summer and open air theatre.

For this production, the Globe has gone into black and white mode, well almost. The usually marbled pillars which hold up the roof over the stage, the upper level which houses the musicians, and the clothes worn by the gentry who make up the court of the Duke of Athens are all black. A bit drab you might think, but it's actually entirely appropriate because it contrasts the political state with the world of the fairies – or reality with imagination, if you like. Once the fairies make their appearance everything changes and the colour is writ pretty large with enormous red flowers and colourful fairy costumes with a ballet flavour.

Designers and directors at the Globe are fond of enlarging the already enormous stage as their fancy takes them. And designer Mike Britton has followed tradition by constructing ramps at the side of the stage to form paths leading down to the yard, and an elegant kind of curve has been added to the apron in order to create a circular fairy ring. A splash of vivid blue touches up the acting area and paths that lead through the forest. Overall, it's enough to suggest magic and a dream-like land, even if it doesn't have the naturalistic greenery we often see in 'The Dream'.

The big question about any performance of 'The Dream' is what the company will make of the rude mechanicals' play. Here, the mechanicals are all dressed in white, complete with tights under baggy shirts. Not that long ago, the RSC gave a version of 'The Dream' which had an inventive element in the play where Thisby began to take her acting so seriously that she (well, he actually) became overwhelmed to the astonishment of his fellow players. That was a stroke of genius which gave the play a truly unique element. Not so much in terms of uniqueness here, but more than enough hilarity to make the audience roar almost as much as the lion, and provide a suitable finale to a well-directed and engaging evening's theatre.

Though the nobility - fairy and gentry - take the lead, the plumb role in the play is Bottom, the over-enthusiastic amateur actor who can't quite control his mouth or his desire to show off. The other big question is how he'll look when he's changed into an ass. Here, the transformation is more subtle than you might find elsewhere. No enormous ass's head for this version, just long ears, goofy teeth and some different footwear to make bottom look as though he's got new hooves. Oh, and a mule-like gait and a bit of whinnying to go with it. Paul Hunter gives us a mischievous Nick Bottom, smaller in stature than some other Bottoms I've seen, but still packing quite a punch in the comedy department.

The Globe's presentations wouldn't be nearly so enjoyable without the live music which has become one of the truly distinguishing features at this address. Musical director, Sarah Homer, has shifted to the modern with the use of clarinets and soprano sax, and a stylistic gear change encompassing themes more closely connected to modern jazz than Elizabethan ballads, especially for the entrance of the fairies. Even so, a couple of odd-looking instruments put in appearances – one of them a guitar-like device with a neck that would put a giraffe to shame. Adding to the haunting quality of the music, is the superbe countertenor voice of William Purefoy, which means that the sound department largely provides the real magic in the show.

Some people criticise the Globe for focusing on humour to please the audience. If there was an opportunity to go overboard with humour in a Shakespearian play, it's given to a director on a plate in 'A Midsummer Night's Dream'. Jonathan Munby rejects the temptation, but still manages to get the humour across without forcing it, and the packed audience seemed totally content.

This won't go down as the most innovative 'Dream' in history, nor is it the most creative. It lacks the kind of atmospheric reality of a forest backdrop – the kind of thing the Open Air Theatre can manage so easily because of their location. But this is a 'Dream' that's great fun without being strained or overdone, and the haunting music alone would more than justify a visit.

(Peter Brown)


Production photo by Manuel Harlan

Looking for the best seats...