A Midsummer Night's Dream
Shakespeare's Globe Theatre, London, UK.
The groundlings at Shakespeare's Globe never know
quite what to expect from a performance. Will they be dragged up on
stage? Drenched in blood? Taken hostage by the characters? No wonder
then that they shifted nervously as Puck was hoisted up by four other
fairies and charged battering-ram style towards the edge of the stage.
Was he going to stage dive? Should they hold up their arms to catch him
or move out of the way? A ripple of indecision swept through the front
lines but it was all OK - Puck was just joking and the laugh was on
them. Relief all round and they could settle back and enjoy the show.
One of the wonderful things about The Globe is that it makes no pretence
of having a fourth wall. In this marvellous playing space the line
between stage and auditorium is blurred, with action frequently bleeding
over into the yard, and actors pushing their way through the audience
standing in the yard area to get to the stage. Director Jonathan Munby
expands on this approach with his clever attitude towards staging in
this extremely colourful production of A Midsummer Night's Dream.
The usual Globe stage has been overlaid with blue floorboards, forming a
circle between the two main pillars and snaking out in paths to the
rear exits, then curling outwards from the stage to partially encircle
the audience in the yard as a curved catwalk. This was made good use of
by characters running away from and chasing one another - the fairies,
the lovers, the mechanicals. It had the effect of bringing the action to
the audience and also making them feel really part of this enchanted
tale. Over the yard, suspended in the centre and from the topmost
point of the Globe is a huge glowing bal,l bobbing gently in the breeze:
the full moon at Midsummer.
The play begins with a solemn dance between Hippolyta and Theseus, clad
in black velvet more befitting of a funeral than a forthcoming wedding.
This Hippolyta is none too pleased to have been woo'd with Theseus'
sword and shows her displeasure with her reluctance to follow him when
called. She also makes comment, by action, on her opinion of his
treatment of Hermia, comforting her with an embrace after Theseus makes
his pronouncement on her choice of the nunnery or marriage to Demetrius.
This is in direct contrast to her reaction to his overruling of Egeus
at the end of the play, where she pauses only momentarily before
following him away to their wedding, where they appear dressed in
flowing ivory silks and dance together in a much more relaxed and
tactile way. The actual changes in movement are subtle but it is clear
that a major shift in attitude has been made by both Duke and Duchess.
The costuming in this production is stunning, with everything
colour-coded and significant in its own way. The fairies are clothed in
the range of pink through purple to blue. Titania wears a hugely ruffled
deep-pink and lavender ballgown, with Oberon in purple-blue velvet coat
and silk cloak. These costumes are sumptuous and extravagant. Titania's
colours are further extended out into the fairy-ring of large bright
pink poppies planted around the circular stage by the fae upon their
first entrance. Later on we see that Titania's bed is a huge poppy of
the same hue, representing how small the fairies (and Bottom) have
become (in light of her instructions to 'pluck the wings from Painted
butterflies/To fan the moonbeams from his sleeping eyes'). The other
fairies also wear pink/purple/blue but their costumes speak of a
decadence fallen on hard times. Their costumes are ragged tutus and
ballet dresses worn with a tatty assortment of other items. All (male
and female) wear corsets/girdles. These are fae who have partied hard
with little thought to the effect on their attire. Puck, in contrast, is
smart in balloon pants and a striped tailcoat with gold trainers. His
colours tend towards turquoise, with half of his hair in rather a bright
shade. A deep-blue chiffon cloth is used as a backdrop to the fairy
kingdom and this is left to flutter prettily in the breeze throughout,
before being dropped and pulled by the fairies across the stage, yard,
and audience heads, when the play returns to the Court setting. The
mechanicals, when we first see them, are each dressed in a different
colour, but theirs are paler, more faded and of rougher cloth. In a
particularly clever move the lovers also wear matching costumes, with
Helena and Demetrius in gold and Hermia and Lysander in green. Not
particularly subtle but easy to keep track of who's who amidst all the
Titania (Siobhan Redmond) and Oberon (Tom Mannion) are played with
mostly-Scottish accents, perhaps reflecting the older Celtic
associations of the fairy world. I always find that Scottish accents
work particularly well with the rhythm of Shakespearean texts, something
once again proved in this instance. This King and Queen are formal,
upright, restrained, until Titania swoons as the sight of Bottom and
later on Oberon breaks down with grief at his treatment of Titania. In
this way they very much reflect their doubles at Court in a way that not
all productions of Dream manage. The little Indian boy that they
fight over is here an adorable child dressed in a traditional Indian
style, and in bright orange colour. Titania keeps him close to her and
the love between them is obvious. It is heartrending to later see him
tug at her dress for attention and then be rejected and sent away as she
becomes besotted with Bottom. We clearly see how Oberon wins him from
The Lovers thread of the story seems to be overshadowed by the Fairies
and Mechanicals, and although their performances are perfectly
acceptable they don’t make much of an impression. The girls (Pippa Nixon
and Laura Rogers) do better than the boys (Christopher Brandon and
Oliver Boot), with Rogers as a bossy and despairing Helena, and Nixon
who seems rather surprised by the whole affair. There are some nice
touches - Helena gradually stripping and falling to the ground
spread-eagled whilst Demetrius lectures her about modesty, and the girls
trying to fight each other whilst the boys work together to trip them
up – but on the whole this part of the story seems rather underplayed.
The Mechanicals are very much played up in this production and their act
put together particularly well, with the requisite physical comedy and
bawdy humour drawing huge laughs from the audience. Bottom (Paul Hunter)
is given ears, teeth, hoofs and a tail rather than a full ass head, and
is promptly gagged by Titania to silence his ear-shattering hee-haws.
Thisbe kisses the ‘wall’s hole’, Moonshine has a tantrum because he
keeps getting interrupted, and Pyramus manages to mime stabbing himself,
cutting his throat, hacking off his limbs and gouging his eyes out
before falling dead with a knife stuck in his groin. This is Bottom at
his finest, overplaying his part not just for the Court, but for us, the
extended audience. At the end of their play the mechanicals engage in a
dance that turns out to be made up of badly executed tai chi moves,
completely winning us over with their innocent belief that their play
was most excellent.
This is a production where things are very much what they seem.
The fairy world is solid and real, bright and beautiful. Oberon declares
to the audience ‘I am invisible’ in simple explanation of why the
lovers can’t see him, and Helena also speaks directly to us in her
complaint about love. Everything is larger than life, real in its
unreality. When Puck enchants Lysander, we see him reach down to the
sleeping man (who is facing away from the audience) and pluck out his
two eyes on elastic, holding them in the palm of his hand whilst he
squeezes the flower juice over them, before pinging them back into their
sockets. This epitomises the whole play for me: bright, frenetic and
engaging; a production that is cartoon-like in its bold realisation of
what is too often portrayed as flimsy and ethereal. Some might see its
lack of depth as a flaw, but in its intention to be about spectacle I
found it to be enjoyable and a fine success.
This review was originally published on The Shakespeare Revue.