Review by Sam Waite
One of Shakespeare’s best-known and best-loved comedies, A Midsummer Night’s Dream has returned to Shakespeare’s Globe as part of their new summer season. Brought back to the stage by director Elle While, the production boasts some bold performances and arresting visuals, but does this new production’s take on the tale of love and sorcery run smooth?
Immediate attention goes to the work of scenic artists Virginie Bourgery and Emily Carne. Tree roots and branches appear in in various places on the Globe Theatre’s stage – some coiled around the pillars, others coming up through the floorboards themselves – and with their dusting of gold paint the idea of a forest where magic could be afoot is created before the show even begins. Along with brightly-coloured, almost garish in places, costumes designed by takis, the visual impact of this piece, overly familiar to many, takes centre stage from the very beginning.
The play opens days before the wedding of Theseus and Hippolyta, the Duke of Athens, and Queen of the Amazons, respectively. Dampening the celebration is Hermia’s refusal to marry Demetrius, who her father has chosen for her, as she is madly in love with Lysander. Her best friend Helena, meanwhile, lusts after Demetrius while he wants nothing to do with her. While this tangled mess of desires builds, a troupe of local tradesman gather to prepare a play to be performed on the night of the wedding.
The lovers themselves are well-cast and perform beautifully. While Sam Crerar (as Lysander) and Vinnie Heaven (Demetrius) find differing levels of comedy in the lovesickness the play’s magical elements create, and Heaven in particular brings to life a slightly brutish, unrefined quality to his role. The two women, Francesca Mills (Hermia) and Isobel Thom (Helena) prove to be exquisite physical comediennes, both doling out and receiving blows in hilarious, well-executed fight scenes, and an eventual rivalry breaks into a deliciously cutting catfight.
Elsewhere, and soon to collide with the plotlines of the Athenians, Titania and Oberon – the Queen and King of the Fairies – are estranged after a disagreement over the child of one of Titania’s worshippers. She wishes to raise him in safety and refuses to allow Oberon to raise him as his henchmen. Oberon then enlists the sprite Puck to enchant the sleeping Queen so that she will fall in love with the first being she lays eyes on – observing Helena and Demetrius, Oberon also commands that the same spell be cast on Demetrius so that he will fall in love with Helena.
This, of course, all goes hysterically wrong – mistaken identity finds Lysander enchanted by mistake, and an attempt to correct this finds Helena fought over by the two men while Hermia is suddenly without any male attention. Titania, once awakened, evolves into a comedic tour-de-force by Marianne Oldham, bringing a sensual, forceful quality to her infatuation with tradesman Bottom – transformed by now into a donkey by the devilish Puck. Played by Mariah Gale, Puck is one of the more immediately funny roles in this production, but Gale is at her best when Bottom (she pronounces it Buh-Tome) is overeager and desperate to impress as a teacher’s pet actor – Bottom’s role seems flat and slightly forgettable once tasked only with being the object of Titania’s desires.
Puck, the sprite under Oberon’s command, is portrayed here by Michelle Terry, the Artistic Director of the Globe itself. While her derangement and unbridled energy in the role is striking and largely entertaining, there are times where it begins to feel self-indulgent and at odds with what is going on around her. Perhaps this was a deliberate choice on the part of Terry and director Elle While, but as the other fantastical characters come across as more grounded and human, the effect doesn’t quite land like it, perhaps, ought to.
Special mention must go to Rebecca Root as Peter Quince, the director/writer of the play to be performed at the end of the evening – both for the newlyweds, and for the real-life audience with the play as the final sequence. Engaged and openly desperate to impress those of a higher stature, Root stresses just off-stage as things go wrong, and at one point actively engages with the audience she is stood amongst, shaking shoulders, and delighting in a job well done. While this B plot can come across as extraneous, work like Root’s helps to keep the crowd on board with a separate narrative running in the background.
The physicality of the piece is impactful and inspired, brought to life by many behind the scenes – not only director Elle While, but movement director Annie-Lunnette Deakin-Foster, magic consultant John Bulleid, and fight and intimacy director Rachel Cristi Bown-Williams. Under this groups steady hands, the acting performances, moments of violence, instances of trickery, and allusions to sexuality all blend as a singular, enchanting unit. Actors climb backwards in nets while feigning sleep, place their hands around the necks of co-stars, mount one-another, and throw other players to the ground – all of this feels immediate, genuine, and impassioned, but never is there an unease or feeling that something could go amiss.
The costumes, in bright, distinguishing colours for the lovers, and regal, almost foreign-seeming by comparison for the Fairy monarchs, may confuse some as to where the piece is set – repeat mentions of Athens are at odd with the styles of clothing. However, Shakespeare’s work has been presented with so many literal and fantastical interpretations, ranging from his own time to the modern day and even imagined futures, that this hardly seems to matter. The costuming for Puck features a painted mask and tangled branches atop Terry’s head, which are both effective in creating this manic, disconnected character, but once the mask was removed, I found I preferred the opportunity for expression allowed by just her painted face.
Bottom, once transformed, appears with a donkey’s tail attached at her waist and ears affixed to her head. Such a simplistic approach to the transformation harkens back to the play’s original period, where the statement from the text that Bottom had transformed was all that was needed. In more literal moments, the lovers find their own clothes gradually deconstructed and damaged by their lengthy night in the woods.
Toeing the line between a traditional, straight-forward take and a bold re-imagining for a new audience, Elle While’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream has moments which detract from its overall appeal. Nevertheless, the sheer charisma of its core players and the command of the artform on display from the array of creatives helping to hone these fine performances is deeply impressive. Suggesting in its final moments that it could be the source of the dreaded “all a dream” endings, this Midsummer Night’s Dream is one worth experiencing.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream plays at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre until August 12th.
For tickets and information visit https://www.shakespearesglobe.com/whats-on/a-midsummer-nights-dream-2023/
Photos by Helen Murray