I first encountered A Midsummer Night’s Dream while reading Ballet Shoes as a child. The three Fossil sisters are enrolled at stage school, where reluctant actress Petrova is nearly fired from her role as the fairy Mustard-Seed in the play, after repeatedly struggling to intone correctly the very simple line ‘And I’.
Yesterday I saw a hilarious and mad production of the play at the Globe. It featured:
– Hermia and Helenus breaking out into a rendition of ‘Single Ladies’ and ‘oh my god oh my god’ flapping at news of Hermia’s engagement
– A wheelchaired chav Egeus with a trackie top and Burberry blanket
– The Wall dressed in ducktaped cereal boxes talking about her cranny
– Elizabethan-burlesque fairies with bustles and long dresses open at the front, nipple tassles, fishnets, and half-masks that gave them all a moon forehead
– Vaguely Indian-ish set design with fluorescent flower chains hanging from the arches leading backstage; a sitar player cross-legged presiding above the stage, goddess-like, surmounted by the neon-scrawled slogan ‘Rock the ground’
– Creepy-nervous finger-twitches and on-off smiles from a Puck who jubilantly fires a water pistol and borderline sexually harasses audience members
– A fusion of bhangra and jazz serving as foot-tapping anthems at important moments, or as hypnotic background whenever Puck is on stage or enchantments are performed. Sometimes accompanied by bhangra-hip-hop dance
– Lysander’s ‘Hoxton hipster’ t-shirt emblazoned with Jack Kerouac’s ‘The only thing I can offer the world is my confusion’
– The Lion with rubber marigolds for fur struggling to enunciate over a stammer
– The ‘rude mechanicals’ transposed to Globe staff, including a health and safety officer, who announce the no-phones policy and advise us on coping strategies for the heat before the play begins … or is this now part of the play?
I’ve described these features as a list because the hotch-potch nature of the play, which mixes prose and poetry, fusing and mocking high and low registers (the staging of Pyramus and Thisbe mocks tragedy), has been taken here as an extreme production value. It’s hard to find unity or justification for some of the choices made: the transposal to modern-day London and some of the pop culture references make sense, but why bhangra?! Perhaps it’s an attempt to embody the randomness of the chance events and irrationality that drive the action, such as the infatuations and horseplay the text gives space to? Some people have instead found a unifying factor in the audience’s response of laughter to both the comic and the mocked tragic*.
The randomness is surprising, which keeps it engaging. I was certainly rapt enough not to mind the sun glare and the heat while standing up for three hours. However, I found that there was perhaps not enough that was serious even in the serious parts, which risks it becoming random for its own sake: all the characters are mocked, including chav Egeus, blingtastic Hippolyta, and slightly ineffective prettyboy Lysander. And where Shakespeare has one of the main marriages founded on magical infatuation, the production doesn’t help us believe that love is anything more than this. Lysander and Hermia don’t appear to have much chemistry beyond his weak sexual advances and the almost throwaway ‘Love you’ – ‘Love you too’ exchanges with Hermia. This is despite the play’s assertion that ‘Love looks not with the eyes but with the mind’, distinguishing between love that originates in sight (such as the magical infatuation) and something else: the ‘marriage of true minds’ (borrowed from a sonnet) that I don’t find quite believable here.
The fourth wall breaking and self-referentiality is fun, however. The play itself already refers to the practical difficulties of theatrical representation by dramatising another production, this one plagued by (deliberately) bad acting and the actors’ egos. Emma Rice’s production co-opts the audience into yet another circle of theatricality as we are forced quite tangibly to act ourselves (i.e. figure actions that we would not normally perform; one audience member had to untie Titania’s shoes); and there are references both to the play’s critical history (Shakespeare critics’ obsession with ‘the text’ which this production has no qualms about altering), and to past and current performance circumstances: we’re on Bankside, and I think I caught a reference to Mark Rylance, a previous artistic director at the Globe. Even the Globe’s outside area is bedecked with trees to resemble the fairy-ridden forest of madness the characters escape to. We become characters in a performance too; put in an artificial environment and forced to adapt to it and relate to the other actors before, during and after the play itself.
Indeed, ‘All the world’s a stage’, as the author wrote in As You Like It, and it is the blurring of these boundaries between reality and unreality (including artistic ‘untruth’), that makes the production true to the artwork: we are told to pretend that our experience of the play was a dream (‘you have but slumber’d here / While these visions did appear’), which Titania and Bottom also believe (‘what visions have I seen! / Methought I was enamoured of an ass’; ‘I have had a dream, past the wit of man to say what dream it was’).
In remembering this performance, I’m luckier than Bottom, who cannot remember his dream: ‘The eye of man hath not heard, the ear of man hath not seen, man’s hand is not able to taste, his tongue to conceive, nor his heart to report, what my dream was’. What can this do but make us question ‘which things are real’ and which are not, and what is the meaning of the artistic experience if all we have is the inchoate stuff of imagination brought to some kind of life by the author: ‘as imagination bodies forth / The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen / Turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothing / A local habitation and a name‘.
I don’t have an answer, but I know that it wasn’t half bad to spend a midsummer day’s afternoon in a hot haze of ‘airy nothing’.
* Guilhamet, Leon. “A Midsummer-Night’s Dream As The Imitation Of An Action.” Studies In English Literature (Rice) 15.2 (1975): 257