A Midsummer Night's Dream, by William Shakespeare Shakespeare's Globe, July 22
‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ starts with a begrudging betrothal and two sets of forbidden lovers- and ends in three weddings. That is a lot of turnaround in two hours’ traffic on the stage, but Emma Rice’s incredible production at Shakespeare’s Globe is prepared for it: the theatre is ready for a wedding, and those reception party staples, huge round tables draped in white caterer’s linen are set throughout the space, on the stage, even in the groundling’s pit. These are echoed by dozens of big, spherical balloons filling the stage and sky. Festoons of marigolds, a rainbow trim, and a sitar player let us know that this is to be a union not just of hearts, but also a modern marriage of cultures, sexualities, and race. It will be the greatest wedding ever – and we are invited as guests.
This is a modern London, a polyglot of traditions, ethnicities, heritage, and race…set on a centuries old stage. The forced marriage of Hippolyta and Theseus looks to be a business match more than a marriage, and the pair may be Turkish, or Persian…but they are not in love. The young lovers which Aegeus is set to thwart are young London professionals: a glasses wearing wonk for Hermia (in love with her hipster Lysander in a Kerouac t-shirt), is promised to a Demetrius in his slim fit khakis and small print shirt. Demetrius is doted upon in turn by Helenus, a dapper young gay man, who flips shade when he is angry, or dances Beyonce with his BFF Hermia. While this twist may sound superimposed, it does exactly what reinterpretation does best: deepen the action, relationship, and character of the story as written. Helenus’ quiet and rejected love for Demetrius is painfully clear, and the parental marriage ban resonates deeply as both sexual oppression and age gap between generations. In a London (and a world) which is changing, the young lovers are a part of a new world whose choices reject a life they cannot live.
If the world of modern day London is finding its way through this change, the world of Puck and the fairies stopped fighting the culture wars centuries before. Music and dance flood the world of the fairies: full bodied, gyrating dance; afro-pop and sitar ragas; songs belted and chanted, invoking a world of permission and sensuality. The music of Shakespeare’s ‘Midsummer…’ is all there and more, with set pieces such as the First Fairy’s entrance monologue turned into a floor stomping welcome for Puck, and modern extrapolations of sonnets and pop guitar love ballads are added, again to create e fabulous polyglot of this production. These fairies live in a world of joy and abandon; permission, exploration, and creation. They inhabit the nexus of sexual generation…and they couldn’t be any happier.
When Oberon and Titania are introduced, ‘ill-met by moonlight,’ their entrances are juxtaposed: Oberon is dissolute, stockings undone, unshaven, carrying a half drunk bottle of cheap cider and pushing his way through the groundlings. Titania descends gloriously from the flies, her diaphanous gowns billowing out and carried over to cover the entire stage by her fairy attendants. Both are wearing – what? Bedraggled Elizabethan doublets, Victorian corsets, 18th Century Paniers, fishnet stockings; there are centuries’ worth of fashion heaped fabulously together. These fairies have been rocking the ground on this very site for over 400 years, still present in modern day London and witness to generations and generations of ‘what fools these mortals be.’
The discord between Titania and Oberon makes up the central conflict of the play, and while it is often muddily dealt with as a dispute over a strange attachment to an ‘Indian boy,’ in the production at Shakespeare’s Globe it is brought into high definition. The loss between the two is palpable, as is the betrayal and indignity of the dispute over the child. It sterilizes their love and leaves it impotent, their infertility spilling over into the harvest of farmers and discord in the land. While Titania still soars, Oberon is grounded. How can the natural world be right when the supernatural world is at odds? How can we be at peace when our hearts are imbalanced?
If the lovers have the heartache of first love, infatuation, and sexual mayhem, This couple’s hearts ache from the maturity of years, perhaps centuries, together. Oberon weeps watching first love, pines for the thrill of sexual touch, and despairs being at odds with his heart’s home. With this lost and angry Oberon, Puck the sprite becomes more than trickster: she is the Fool, the Ariel, who is both witness to her master’s pain, as well as the North Star guiding him back to his true self. The relationship is deeply touching, and elicits yet another kind of love: devotion and service.
Completing the present day world of The Globe are the Rustics, who here become a band of Bankside volunteer ushers. Overzealous hall-monitors, they attack their duties with officious dedication, whether it is discharging the preshow curtain speech, or rehearsing and presenting their play before the king. These very specific journeymen (ahem: journeywomen, in this production), have had their roles translated from tinker and joiner to ‘aromatherapist,’ and ‘unwed mother of five.’ They too are a weft in the fabric of modern London, and clowns of the truest sort: sweet, charming, self-conscious, ridiculous, nervous, foibled, and deeply human. It is a joy to see them traverse the terrors of being featured before the king- of course, Nick Bottom (‘health and safety officer,’ with a ready heroic grin and the confidence of a three year-old), has no such fear. The folly of his over confidence is underlined by the fawning attention he receives from all his fellow ‘volunteer ushers.’
This production succeeds gloriously because each of the parts of the comedy are so meticulously conceived and executed, and with such high energy, it is impossible not to embrace the world created. There are moments of great comedy and wonder in the production (and they are many and constant: Titania’s orgasmic first meeting with her ass-head lover, running about the stage while stripping off stockings and panties; the fight of the young lovers, part shade war, part slap fest; Puck cradling the weeping Oberon in her arms; a charming Pinterest crafts project of a ‘Pyramus and Thisby’), these moments succeed because of the unified work of vision and artists. If this ‘Dream’ is a vision of a new and wondrous London, and a new and wondrous Shakespeare’s Globe, it is ‘a most rare vision,’ indeed.
After the night’s revels, with three couples united in modern Bankside, Titania and Oberon come together, alone, under the open sky of the Globe. The sing together, in harmony:
‘Jack shall have Jill Naught shall go ill Jack shall have Jack: No turning back’
They both take flight again, hoisted over the stage by the fairies- and the sheer, innocent joy in Oberon in this unexpected grace of a second flight is a marvel, his heart leaping in his throat like a teenager. Love, Joy, and Sex are combustive stages, where we are burned down, to be formed again.