“Gentles, perchance you wonder at this show. But wonder on, till ’truth make all things plain”
Above the stage for Emma Rice’s inaugural production as artistic director of Shakespeare’s Globe is an illuminated sign that reads “rock the ground”. A quote from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which is the opening show of this season, it also feels like something of a statement of intent, a determination to do things her own which on this evidence, feels guaranteed to ruffle the feathers of a traditionalist or three.
So lights are being used like never before, sound systems only previously heard at gigs dusted off, and a resolutely idiosyncratic approach to the text employed. At times, it feels like a raucous rough-housing which makes for a different Bankside experience at the very least, and one which I have to say got round to seducing me. I’m sure Rice will have her detractors, as she moves from Kneehigh to the Globe, but the scope of her ambition here is rather awesome in its boldness.
With dramaturg Tanika Gupta, this Dream has been updated to a modern, mulitcultural London setting – “Athenian garments” becomes “Hoxton hipster garb” – and interestingly, Helena has been recast as a male Helenus. It’s an arresting change but ultimately well-conceived (Demetrius’ claim to his former gay lover that “I cannot love you” gains new currency here), the friendship between Helenus and Hermia as played by Ankur Bahl and Anjana Vasan brimming with potency from Beyoncé-flavoured delight to genuinely appalled horror at each other’s treatment at the hands of men.
And there’s all sorts of other inventive touches too. Has Titania ever seemed so properly taken over by Oberon’s spell as in cabaret star Meow Meow’s unbridled and increasingly unhinged turn here (though I wasn’t mad keen on Zubin Varla’s cider-swigging fairy king), the diaphanous cylinders and giant balls of Börkur Jónsson’s forest design swaying gently in the breeze, Victoria Brennan and Malcolm Rippeth’s lighting striking like red lightning every time magic takes hold.
There are also innovations that fluctuate in their efficacy. Rice has made no secret of her desire to make Shakespeare easier to understand and this she does by ruthlessly editing. There’s “ugly bitches” in amongst the “canker-blossoms” and “puppets”, the Rude Mechanicals’ play isn’t “preferred”, it’s “in the final two” and as they’re reimagined as Globe staff, so their occupations are updated…enter Nick Bottom the health and safety officer.
So it’s not just about making it easier to understand, it’s about making it easier to laugh, inserting a vein of comedy rather than mining it from the text itself. And something of its poetry is lost too in these unexpected deviations and in the lack of texture to the amplification, Katy Owen’s Puck suffering most here in a shouty manner that undermines some of her more interesting choices in presenting such an emotional sprite. It will be thus be interesting to see how the other directors in this opening season (Caroline Byrne, Iqbal Khan, Matthew Dunster) are encouraged to approach the verse.
The considerable use of music, composed by Stu Barker, also has its issues: a preponderance of songs slow the pace somewhat (their length presumably dictated by the amount of time needed for the actors playing the Mechanicals to change costumes into the fairies), and the decision to underscore several scenes with musical accompaniment teeters on the edge of overwhelming. I did like the Bollywood influences that shone through though and you have to think that Shakespeare would definitely have approved of a fellow artist such as David Bowie getting a tribute here.
For all the issues that might be perceived, the over-riding sense is of an artistic director giving a tree an almighty, mischievous, good shake and seeing how it all falls out. Only a fool would try to characterise Rice’s forthcoming reign off the back of one production (Spacey and Cloaca, anyone?); rather its the decisions to institute a 50/50 gender split right off the bat and to programme such diversity in this opening Wonder Season (including a new music series called Wonder Women) that point to an immediate future full of variety – we’ll see how much of this change sticks but the worst thing a cultural institution can do is stagnate.
Running time: 3 hours (with interval)
Booking until 11th September