'A Midsummer Night's Dream' at the Globe is an evening of raucous revelry
After the year we’ve had, we’re all ready for a party – and this production of Shakespeare’s lovestruck comedy, directed by Sean Holmes and first seen in 2019, riotously delivers a fiesta to remember. Designed by Jean Chan in retina-searing dayglo colours, it leads us into the woods to a fairyland that is like a psychedelic trip at a music festival. Unusually, the scenes with the Mechanicals – often so tedious – are at the centre of the action here; it’s the passions and confusions of the two pairs of lovers that feel a little like subplot. The staging is so busy with pratfalls and spectacle that the emotional stakes are never quite high enough – who cares how crooked the course of true love runs, when everyone’s so exuberantly off their heads? But if that freewheeling, boisterous energy means we sacrifice subtlety, it’s also what makes the show such fun.
Athens – where Victoria Elliott’s Hippolyta, the mutinous captured queen, arrives in a fury packed in a giant cardboard box – is like a surreal Toytown. Peter Bourke’s Theseus is such a twinkly buffoon, in his candy-coloured satin military get-up, that it’s hard to imagine him and his troops winning any sort of victory – although if recent history has taught us anything, it’s how astonishingly clownish and inept our leaders can be, and still get away with it. You can hardly blame Elliott’s Hippolyta, in the end, for gleefully abandoning her doltish new husband to run away with Sophie Russell’s splendid Bottom.
The lovers, meanwhile, are in a kind of drunken dressing-up box Elizabethan garb – all doublets and wonky ruffs – while Nadine Higgin’s Peter Quince, strutting in lime-green heels, leads an am-dram team sporting bedazzled streetwear. The ass that Russell is transformed into is a ribboned piñata donkey. Pink-haired Titania in silver glam-rock boots (Elliott again) makes her bed in a dumpster full of paper flowers, and carnivalesque fairies – weird conical, multicoloured creatures topped with a single huge, googly eye – shimmy to a brass-band version of Hendrix’s Purple Haze.
Russell plays the eager audience like she’s rocking the main stage and we’re her electric guitar, full of swagger, charisma and delicious pomposity. There’s lovely work, too, from George Fouracres’s lovable lunk of a Flute and Rachel Hannah Clarke’s sweet Snug, as well as some very entertaining audience participation when an unsuspecting groundling is press-ganged into portraying Starveling. The splitting of the role of Puck between various cast members makes for some enjoyable quick-change farce, but feels like a wasted opportunity, and isn’t hugely helpful in a production that’s already so anarchic.
But while the poetry isn’t made a priority here, there are still moments of loveliness that make you catch your breath. Bourke’s delivery, as Oberon, of the famous speech that begins “I know a bank where the wild thyme blows” is a little oasis of calm in the mayhem, the gorgeous language accompanied by a faint ripple of tinkling chimes. Shona Babayemi finds real pathos in the spurned Helena, her quietly heartbroken dejection touching. And in the play’s final minutes, as Titania and Oberon offer us their farewell fairy blessing, there is a long pause of absolute silence that after the hurly burly of the last 14 months is startlingly intense and deeply moving: a communion of actors and audience, and an honouring of theatre’s return. This is, ultimately, a celebration: and in that respect, it joyously delivers.
Photo credit: Nadine Higgin, Sophie Russell, Victoria Elliott, Jacoba Williams in ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ at Shakespeare’s Globe. (Photo by Tristram Kenton)