Wednesday, 21 May 2008

A Midsummer Night's Dream - 2008

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 frenetic activity.

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 her.

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.

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