One thing is certain, this isn’t a summer for purists. On the heel of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s successful tour – which made a point of hiring local amateur actors for the mechanicals (you know, those poor players who provide the denouement with its very own play-within-a-play) – the Globe went a step further with an irreverent, vivid production. Not content with the venue’s usual leeway on improvisation, Emma Rice’s Dream is infused with a distinctly psychedelic, and mildly Indian, feel. Costumes are modern, the soundtrack Bollywood (with hints of Bowie and Beyoncé here and there), and the whole performance is presided over by a sitar-playing goddess. The transformation of Helena to Helenus – this version’s wildest textual liberty – pales in comparison with all the colour; it fits in rather well with the play’s polyamorous nature. At least now we’re sure: this new director knows how to put on a party.
Yet, if there’s anything that other production at the Playhouse demonstrates, it’s that inventiveness can do a lot more than look nice. Granted, director Simon Evans can afford to twist the text in ways Emma Rice at the Globe never could, but that’s always with the caveat that too much audacity with classics often falls flat. If you’re going to do Shakespeare well, you’re going to have to start by doing Shakespeare (sorry, we’ll skip the platitudes from now on). This performance starts with all seven actors impersonating themselves around the work table, debating on how to put on A Midsummer Night’s Dream without the requisite 17 players (that’s right, the play calls for 17 parts!). If it makes for a nice parallel with the mechanicals’ scenes, it allows for a better one-up on the Bard – he wrote us a play-within-a-play, they’re doing a play-within-a-play-within-a-play. Had the rest of the night been uniquely painful, there’s no doubt this thought would’ve at least carried part of the audience through.
The obvious solution, to use spectators for the empty roles, is thankfully only explored within the limits of a decent performance – that is, audience members are mostly used as props: a wall, a flower, you name it! The result is, as expected, very funny, and on the right side of overbearing. That’s because the actual actors are made to play two or three different parts, turning the show into a powerful display of range. The first act makes for a perfect example, so easily is the audience thrust from a whimsical troupe meeting (complete with paper coffee cups) to the court of Theseus in Athens, and the dangerous liaison of Lysander and Hermia (Egeus and Hippolyta having been cut out):
“For aught that I could ever read,
Could ever hear by tale or history
The course of true love never did run smooth”
The transformation is striking – a testament to the actors’ talent. Freddie Fox’s acting, in the guises of raging Demetrius and hilarious Bottom, is a highlight (his transformation into the donkey is a masterful display of physical comedy), even if his role is really only doubled: the ‘actor’ of the first scene and the mechanical Nick Bottom are eerily similar in character. It is with the Titania to Peter Quince (Maddy Hill) and Hermia to Snug (Suzie Preece) combinations – changes from divine to meek and dramatic to dunce, respectively – that range becomes significant. Once the play starts to pick up, the result turns into a constant stream of laughter interspersed with occasional lyrical, and otherwise tragic, moments. That’s as modern as Shakespeare is going to get… if this could even be considered Shakespeare.
And that’s the thing: with a running time of 1:50, this production veers quite far from what a classic Midsummer Night’s Dream ought to be. Of all the liberties taken, and there are many – from a very partial Theseus to Titania leaving Oberon in the end (and counting all the cuts) – the play’s regular destruction of the fourth wall certainly feels like a standout. Along with the introductory scene, the original players reappear between every act, telling the audience to ‘imagine’ everything missing from the set – scenery, responsive lighting, music: A funny and effective way of getting past the limitations of a small budget. That is, until the very end, when during the final scene the Playhouse reveals its beautiful star-like lights, and its functioning speakers. A calm, tender epilogue to a mad Dream.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream will be playing at the Southwark Playhouse until July 1st.