Theatre review: The Globe's A Midsummer Night's Dream on DVD

A Midsummer Night's Dream - The Globe, London, 2016 (DVD)

Shakespeare's Globe
Written by William Shakespeare
Director: Emma Rice
Cast: Zubin Varla, Meow Meow, Katy Owen, Ankur Bahl, Edmund Derrington, Ncuti Gatwa, Anjana Vasan, Ewan Wardrop, Lucy Thackeray
The Globe, London

Opus Arte DVD

Emma Rice's short stay as artistic director at the Globe was to say the least not without controversy, but it raised anew some interesting questions for debate. Such as, how far can you take Shakespeare before it's no longer really Shakespeare?

Well, no production or performance is alike, much less anything like the way the plays were originally performed, so there's quite a bit of leeway there (and differences of opinion). Surely at least the words are sacrosanct? Well, there have always been scholarly disputes about authorship, differences in original quarto editions, and in practice the text of plays almost always has cuts in modern performance, so it's by no means easy to define what is 'authentic'. What matters most perhaps is adherence to the spirit of the work, but that's also a matter of interpretation. Ultimately a good production of a Shakespeare play should open up new ways of viewing the work and throw some light on what it tells us about life, human behaviour and actions.

What shouldn't be discounted is the ability of Shakespeare's plays to entertain, for if you're not entertained it's not going to hold you attention and you won't get a whole lot out of it. Academic questions about the text and the nature of theatre aside, Emma Rice's production of A Midsummer Night's Dream is unquestionably entertaining, but is it still wholly Shakespeare? Well, that might be more of an issue for other productions during the season (where I suspect the truth is that it might be considered bold and experimental anywhere else but at The Globe) but as far as A Midsummer Night's Dream is concerned I would argue that for all the licence it takes with text and performance, Rice's production is entirely in the spirit of the piece.

One change that is often made in modern Shakespeare productions is gender reassignment, which can be justifiable but which is rarely welcomed, done as it is more often for notions of equality and balance than for any real benefit to the text. Rice's production of A Midsummer Night's Dream actually makes a better case for this than most and involves fewer changes to the text mainly by changing only Helena to Helenus. Rather than being done for the sake of introducing a gay element into the work it actually follows Oberon's observation that "Love looks not with the eyes, but with the mind. And therefore is wing'd Cupid painted blind".

What this really does is make the love-swap confusion rather more wildly anarchic, hilarious and ...well, yes a bit confusing too, but it really forces the viewer to think again on the nature of love, its changeability and its fickleness for all of its depth and sincerity, and for how it leads people to behave or misbehave. The scenes between Lysander, Hermia, Demetrius and Helenus, the young victims of Oberon and Puck's misguided interventions in the forest outside Athens (reworked for London Bankside here) are even more twisted and consequently often as vicious as they are heartfelt; it's young love in action and there's plenty of it.

What else does Emma Rice do to annoy 'purists'? Well, there are are numerous cuts mostly shortening speeches, a few modern colloquialisms thrown in as interjections or reactions, a few words switched to modern equivalents and modern locations and a little bit of 'extemporisation' playing to the audience. It's a lot more than I would normally feel comfortable with, but to be honest if I didn't have the text in front of me I wouldn't have noticed most of the trims. There's nothing here that really takes away from the actual Shakespearean text and verse, but rather it gets a laugh, engages the audience and actually draws their attention to the importance of the words and their meaning. The use of theatrical lighting and amplification? Again, this might be more of an issue in other Globe productions this season, but here on a live recording on DVD it's not an issue.

The character of Rice's production and the nature of the performances are however what really make a bigger impact than anything else. It's loud, energised, anarchic in places, perhaps even 'hallucinogenic', but that is very well suited to A Midsummer Night's Dream. This Globe production really taps into the feverish madness of the nature of the play and its extraordinary imagery and situations. The production also makes more use than most of music to tap into that lyricism in the text, with a sitar player and numerous sung pieces composed by Stu Barker, some using Shakespeare, others entirely new. It's not just the usual tuneless rhyming and folky arrangements either, but lovely melodic pieces that are charmingly and entertainingly played and sung.

Chief to the rather anarchic nature of this production is Katy Owen's sprightly, even manic Puck who causes all kinds of havoc not only on the stage but off it as well with some unpredictable interaction with the audience. Zubin Varla's Oberon looks like he has partaken of quite a few of those hallucinogenic 'herbs' in his time and makes an interesting counterpart to burlesque chanteuse Meow Meow's Titania. In fact, the same kind of attention to detail and characterisation is applied to each of the individuals in each of the groups with Anjana Vasan a particularly spirited Hermia energising and antagonising the Athenian lovers, and Bottom and 'Rita' Quince (with her Mark Rylance gifted tambourine) heading up the ladies of the Mechanicals with delightful comic turns from Ewan Wardrop and Lucy Thackeray. It all gets a little bit shouty and manic in places, it takes some extraordinary liberties with the text and it's not the easiest A Midsummer Night's Dream to follow, but it's certainly an unforgettable one.

The Globe's 2017 production of A Midsummer Night's Dream directed by Emma Rice is released on DVD by Opus Arte. The DVD is all-region and in NTSC format for worldwide compatibility. Often this means some compromise in picture quality, but even though it gets quite dark as the evening draws in on the outdoor performance the image remains relative clear and detailed, if inevitably a little soft. Sound is LPCM 2.0 only and the dialogue is perfectly clear. English subtitles are provided. The only extra features on the disc are a short interval interview with Emma Rice and a Cast Gallery, but there is a good interview with Emma Rice in the booklet, along with a synopsis and a scholarly essay on the properties of herbal drugs and remedies.

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