June 25, 2008, by Peter Kirwan

A Midsummer Night’s Dream @ Shakespeare’s Globe

It’s quite frustrating, on an afternoon when you know you’re going to have to leave a performance five minutes early, when the show begins with a five minute drum duet between two competing musicians. However, this was very much my fault rather than the Globe’s – I had squeezed this production in immediately before a seminar in London, and can hardly expect the Globe to edit a production down purely for my benefit!

I’m surprised to look at the Globe’s site and see that they have only produced one in-house Dream there so far (though Northern Broadsides performed their version in the space in the first season). Considering the sheer amount of Dreams every year, and the fact the Globe is an ideal environment for what I always consider to be Shakespeare’s most family-friendly play, I’m surprised it’s not part of every other season. Jonathan Munby’s new production is a reminder of how successful the play can be, keeping an audience largely made up of school and tourist groups thoroughly entertained.

A floating moon-balloon hung over the audience, largely unnoticed in the afternoon light (though pictures of evening productions suggest it illuminates at night). The playing area was a large blue circle lying on the stage, with walkways that extended to the on-stage entrances and curved down into the audience. Athens itself, this colour aside, was dressed in an austere black, matched in the formal costumes of the nobles and lovers. The formal severity of the place was echoed in Theseus and Hippolyta’s slow opening dance. Upon the introduction of the lovers, the mood stayed sombre, Egeus casting Hermia to the floor and Theseus making his decrees with a voice that brooked no disobedience – Hermia’s apology when saying she didn’t know what had made her bold was delivered quickly, in something approaching genuine fear. This was repeated later as Philostrate laughed off Theseus’ ignorance in wanting to see Pyramus and Thisbe, which quickly became grovelling as he realised he had overstepped his boundaries.

Upon removal to the forest, though, colour was introduced into this dark environment. A blue drape was thrown down to completely cover the back wall, while the fairies, dressed in purples and blues with tattered skirts and laddered tights, jumped out from trapdoors and planted pink flowers around the stage. The lovers found themselves gradually ‘coloured in’ too, as their black tunics and outer-dresses were removed during the play to reveal bright yellows and greens, each matched in colour with their ultimate partner for the audience’s benefit. The lovers were strong throughout, performing their roles entirely adequately though with no hugely revolutionary readings. Christopher Brandon and Oliver Boot as Lysander and Demetrius were entertainingly OTT as the effects of the love-in-idleness turned them into melodramatic poetry-reciters, while Pippa Nixon and Laura Rogers as their respective beauxs became shriller and shriller as the afternoon wore on, eventually launching themselves at each other in a markedly undignified manner, Hermia having to be restrained in midair as she flew at Helena. The two girls also brought out some nice moments referring back to their shared childhood, the two sitting together at the front of the stage in an attempt to arrest the spiralling confusion, Helena pulling Hermia’s head forcefully onto her lap as she relived the past.

Tom Mannion and Siobhan Redmond, doubling Theseus/Oberon and Hippolyta/Titania, made a simple change from English accents to Scottish to distinguish their characters as well as adopting the purple/blue of the rest of the fairies. Mannion had good presence, and was a surprisingly docile Oberon, listening to Titania’s defiance quietly and calmly, standing still at a distance, and only moving centrally after she had left. He was almost avuncular with the audience, quietly saying "I am invisible" as if in explanation. Even in his rage against Puck he was quite ready to admit the vagueness of his own instructions. Michael Jibson’s Puck (doubled with Philostrate) was also perfectly fine, entering via the roof on a rope but thereafter constantly squirming at pangs in his back that luckily prevented him from having to fly over the audience. This Puck was playful but measured, steering well clear of manicness. The Indian Boy was also on-stage for much of the first act, always sticking close to Titania. After Hippolyta became infatuated with Bottom, though, she placed him on her flowery bed and made to follow him offstage. The Boy ran up to her and plucked at her arm, at which she turned on him and pushed him away, leaving him alone on-stage. His running off in the opposite direction closed the first act.

There was good work among the Mechanicals. Paul Hunter’s Bottom was of the likeable-yokel variety, with strong cockney accent and a comically exaggerated manner when ‘acting’. His transformation, complete with long teeth, fuzzy chest hair, tail and long ears, was quite effective, and he pranced rather than walked. His eeyoring became a constant irritation to the fairies, who stood around him visibly unimpressed at their charge to attend on him, and even Hippolyta eventually had to gag him. His repeated rubbing of his crotch in the second act, coupled with Hippolyta’s more than satisfied sighs and reclining in her bed, left little to the imagination. Peter Bankole played Flute-as-Thisbe with an impressively high-pitched voice, but more interest was to be found in Flute’s own revelations as he played a woman. Sharing a stage-kiss with ‘Pyramus’ (to the predicted "eurghs" from the school groups), he was clearly taken with the experience, smiling simperingly after Bottom. Later, as the players waited for news, he sat sobbing in centre-stage, distraught by Bottom’s disappearance. It was comic but also an interesting reading and it would have been nice to see that developed a bit further.

There were plenty of fun moments of visual comedy. Lysander always fell asleep with head turned away from the audience which allowed Puck to pull out two fake eyeballs on long elastic from Lysander’s ‘head’, to suitable grotesque effect. The Mechanicals were always entertaining, and one fantastic moment saw them all freeze in very comic positions as they fled from Bottom. The final performance of Pyramus and Thisbe was plenty of fun too, though there were a surprising amount of borrowings from Greg Doran’s RSC production, including having the chink in the Wall being between Snout’s legs, forcing Pyramus and Thisbe to kiss crotch and buttocks instead of each other (making Flute’s line about "I kiss the hole" especially amusing). Pyramus’ death abandoned all reason and saw the actor ‘chopping off’ all his fingers, toes, crotch, tongue (replacing it when he needed to speak) and finally throwing himself into a heap on the stage to great applause. Quince’s repeated squirming and horror as the cast members variously patronised the Duke (Bottom), threw a hissy fit and stormed off (Starveling) or revealed their skin tight leggings (himself) were good fun too.

As the play returned to Athens, the fairies collected up all the flowers and then, in a lovely move, pulled down the blue drape that covered the black wall and carried it out through the auditorium, it covering the audience in a sea of blue material that took some moments to pass over everyone’s heads. It was a reminder of the power of the Globe to incorporate its audience into the action in a way other theatres just can’t do.

The production was perfectly servicable, though I confess to feeling somewhat disappointed. It was a very straight reading of the play, with very few genuinely original ideas or interpretations – it basically felt as if it had been put on for the sake of putting on a solid Dream, which is of course completely valid, but it would have been nice to have a few more moments of interest. However, the performances and direction were good across the board, and the audience screamed with delight at every joke, so in those terms it was certainly a success. Oh, and if anyone can tell me what happened in the play’s closing moments (after Oberon started singing in Theseus’ house) I’d be very interested to know what I missed!

Posted in Theatre review