|Zubin Varla and Meow Meow in A Midsummer Night's Dream (Photo: Steve Tanner)|
In her beautiful note in the brochure to her first season as Artistic Director of Shakespeare’s Globe, Emma Rice argues for the importance of the preservation of childlike wonder, which she defines as “a deep and immediate relationship to the people we meet and the things that happen to us”. Theatre, Rice writes, can bring us into just such a mindful, intense state of being, creating “a temporary community”, an “army of humanity”, connected by the diverse stories in which we’re absorbed.
While sometimes succumbing to an overly-larky tone that irritated some audiences, at their best Rice’s productions for her Kneehigh company achieved precisely that sense of immediacy and engagement. This may account for my ability to remember moments from her delectable and wildly underrated adaptation of The Umbrellas of Cherbourg and even from her much-derided take on Steptoe and Son with particular vividness several years on. The freshness of Rice’s approach, and her ability to draw wholesale on a range of influences and art forms (“I’m not a minimalist girl,” she’s noted recently), makes her appointment as the Globe’s Artistic Director a particularly exciting one.
Rice has chosen to open her first season with a production that feels very much like a statement of intent, at least as far as her self-directed work is concerned, and that even includes (at least) one big, fat self-reflexive joke. Incorporating nods to Beyoncé, Bowie and Bollywood, George Formby and John Donne, Rice’s take on A Midsummer Night’s Dream is energetic and hugely entertaining from start to finish. With cheeky textual revisions by dramaturg Tanika Gupta that place the play in a fluidly contemporary multicultural London of Hoxton hipsters, Russian brides and gay lovers (Helena becomes Ankur Bahl’s excellent Helenus here, hotly pursing Ncuti Gatwa's Demetrius), the production draws from a grab-bag of inspirations. Oberon's words “Rock the ground” are displayed in neon; Börkur Jónsson supplies a set of floating globes and tubes that suggests nightclub as much as fairy forest; and the proceedings are presided over by sitar player Sheema Mukherjee, whose contributions add pulse and drama throughout.
The approach is highly reminiscent of that of Ed Hall’s Propeller company at its peak: a modern mash-up that nonetheless doesn’t neglect the language, finding mostly ingenious echoes and equivalents, and placing the play vibrantly within a range of traditions and intertexts.
A fine company doesn’t flag (and certainly ticks all the requisite diversity boxes to boot), with enjoyable and inventive turns from Zubin Varla as a swaggering Oberon, Katy Owen’s punky, water-pistol-toting Puck, Ewan Wardrop’s endearingly buffoonish Bottom (here a Bankside Health and Safety Officer channeling George Formby and Bruce Willis in Die Hard mode at various points), Lucy Thackeray’s battily officious Rita Quince and Nandi Bhebhe's bodacious First Fairy.
The stand-out, though, is Meow Meow, reuniting with Rice after their great collaboration on Cherbourg and bringing quirky cabaret spirit to the proceedings once again. Without dominating, Meow Meow is pretty much a show all by herself here: she’s as physically witty and uninhibited as any Titania can ever have been (deliciously deranged when under Oberon’s spell, she pauses at one moment to grab a groundling’s beer) but the real surprise is her verse-speaking, which is commanding and beautiful throughout..
The production’s employment of lights and mics has already proved controversial. But in many ways this doesn’t seem like a staging that’s calculated simply to piss off purists (though apparently it has done just that...) Rather, there’s as much affection as there is irreverence to the show’s shaking up of Shakespeare, and a big-hearted, generous tone that should disarm anyone who goes with an open mind. Rice and her collaborators try out a whole bunch of things here, and while a few of the conceits feel strained and imposed, the end result brings freshness and - yes - wonder to one of Shakespeare’s most familiar plays. The production casts a spell; the space feels transformed. Rock the ground, rock the Globe.
Booking until 11 September.