I spent my Friday night watching a 3-hour long production of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. As daunting as that prospect may seem, I thoroughly enjoyed the experience. Admittedly, Emma Rice’s provocative debut as Artistic Director of the Globe Theatre will either delight or disturb its audience members. Never would you imagine the Globe to be clad in disco lights and its actors to be sporting nipple tassels but, for the most part, it works. Bollywood infused and gender blind, this adaptation is refreshingly diverse and accessible. It is occasionally overwhelming and I was pleased to be watching from the comfort of my living room with the TV remote to hand. Nonetheless, Rice has concocted a delicious recipe of love, sex and magic that leaves you feeling wholly satiated if perhaps slightly nauseous.
As the first female artistic director of the Globe, Rice promises gender parity throughout her casting. The stage is peopled with a diverse and talented cast, from the mischievous water gun-wielding Puck (Katy Owen) to the darkly sensual Titania (Meow Meow) who seemingly moonlights as a cabaret performer. The boldest casting choice is undoubtedly changing the sex of Helena. Ankur Bahl’s moving portrayal of Helenus provides a fresh perspective on ‘a [wo]man scorned’. His desperate longing to be like Hermia now adopts a much deeper meaning. Moreover, Demetrius’ (Ncuti Gatwa) aggressive rejection of Helenus suggests homophobic sentiment. Their physical altercation is also altered, now that they are equals in body type and strength. On the topic of gender fluidity, the neat reversal of Nick Bottom (Ewan Wardrop) who is self-absorbed and senseless, as the lone male actor within an otherwise all-female am-dram troupe promotes female authority. Rice challenges our preconceived ideas of gender performativity suggesting that identity is neither fixed nor innate. Due to the already stimulating narrative, her progressive thinking permeates freely through the space.
After 400 years, it is increasingly difficult to adapt Shakespeare’s plays in clever and innovative ways. Rice does not shy away from this challenge, nor is she constrained by the Globe’s period architecture. During the interval, she muses that spectators ought to feel ‘hugged by the space’ and that the space demands audience interaction. Owen’s hyperactive Puck dismantles the fourth wall as she immerses herself into the audience and flirts with overt sexual innuendo. We see her thrusting the face of an unsuspecting audience member into her chest before seductively munching on a banana. Propriety is often cast aside in live theatre and there seems to be an unstated agreement that allows non consensual interaction. Owen’s constant energy and charisma helps maintain the play’s awe-inspiring vitality, rendering her my personal favourite. Ranking in joint second place is the beguiling Meow Meow and her stage-husband Zubin Varla (Oberon/Theseus) who collectively present the darker themes of the play. As the plot descends into chaos, impish mischief turns into malice. The stage is coated with mist and the lights dim and flicker, making it difficult to distinguish between characters. Oberon’s jealous revenge against his wife is a violation of her sexual agency, shown through her increasing loss of sanity (and clothes). We also watch as Oberon is overcome by desire and climbs on top of his sleeping victims. There is a delicate balance between the gaiety of romantic comedy and its darker purpose which Rice captures well.
The 3-hour running time is partly owed to the generous musical contribution by Kneehigh composer, Stu Barker, and dance breaks choreographed by Etta Mufitt and Rice herself. This metamorphosis into musical theatre augments the comedy and enhances the woozy, erotic beauty of the play. The overly lustful Lysander (Edmund Derrington), dressed in leather, mimics the stereotypical teenage boyband fantasy as he serenades the giddy Hermia (Anjana Vassan), guitar in hand. Likewise, the burlesque-style fairy lullaby, led by the enchanting Nandi Bhebhe is strangely hypnotic and establishes the new magical setting. The tribal, ritualistic atmosphere is frighteningly exhilarating. The way in which the ensemble mimics Titania’s movements and breathing patterns reminded me of a similar scene in 2019 horror movie Midsommar whose characters are also affected by reality-warping substances.
In an adaptation crammed with creative liberties, there are bound to be some gags that fail to land. The climactic play-within-a-play falls flat in contrast to the vibrancy of what came before, despite the actors’ sincere attempt to find comedy in cereal boxes. The dated Beyoncé reference and Demetrius’ celebratory ‘dab’ gesture were also unnecessary. Nonetheless, this production is evidently self-aware of its status as an adaptation and the absurdity of its revisions. Shakespeare’s text has been chopped up and rearranged and the tongue-in-cheek line ‘why is everybody so obsessed with text?’ is a clear advocation for change and dismissal of purist thinking.
Would I recommend this production to my fellow Shakespeare fanatics? Yes, wholeheartedly. However, I would perhaps encourage a stiff drink as a necessary accompaniment. It is stunningly provocative, camp and cynical. Rice promised ‘wonder’ and she delivered. Despite the occasional overkill of comedic liberty and extended running time, this production will have you both laughing out loud and questioning everything you know about Shakespeare.