A Midsummer Night’s Dream is the Love Actually of Shakespeare’s comedies. All intersecting and converging story lines, each filled with its own hilarious escapades. It’s also a bit about (to use a journalistically appropriate phrase) slapping around the patriarchy a little, and The Globe’s production, directed by Dominic Dromgoole, makes the most of that, although occasionally the effect is to highlight the times it’s not true.
So we have our two pairs of young lovers running into the forest to have fairies wreak havoc on their affections. We have the royal fairy couple, having problems with their marriage because they both want the same changeling child, fairies not really buying the whole “what’s mine is yours” aspect of marriage. And we have the mechanicals, a group of Athenian labourers trying to put on a play. All three stories are set against the backdrop of the impending marriage of Theseus (of the “and the Minotaur” Theseuses) and Hyppolyta (queen of the Amazons).
To set this scene, we see a battle, in the middle of which Theseus (John Light, also playing Oberon) and Hyppolyta (Michelle Terry, also playing Titania) lustfully fight each other while his army slaughters hers around them. So we know she’s a warrior, and we also know they’re getting married because otherwise he probably would have killed her, like he killed all her friends. Hashtag: romance. It’s in this environment that Hermia (Olivia Ross) dares to defy her father’s insistence she marry Demetrius (Joshua Silver) and, when threatened with having to do so, or choose between death and staying a virgin forever, runs the hell away.
The forest into which our lovers flee is of course peopled by fairies, and dark fairies they are. All animalistic and autocratic; when Titania falls in love with the literally ass-headed Bottom (a brilliantly deadpan Pearce Quigley) she just takes him, by force, back to her place, for some donkey love. It’s among the fairies, however, that some cast inconsistencies appear. The girls are just better. Titania’s at least twice as awesome as Oberon, and Matthew Tennyson’s “merry wanderer” Puck is just not all that merry.
The reverse is true of the quartet of lovers; the boys seem much more eager to take advantage of the real fun of the play, particularly Luke Thompson as Lysander who, in his professional debut, was one of the standout performers. Sadly, the physical possibilities of running through a forest driven by obsessive love are never fully explored. There are only two real moments of physical comedy, and even then things are kept much tamer than we'd like.
The real slapstick is kept for the hapless mechanicals who, to a man, embrace it joyfully, with feet stuck in stage floors, crinolines around waists, and holes in crotches. Their merry ribbing on the many and varied flaws of bad amateur theatre makes us think about how little it’s changed over the past 500 years, and let us end the evening with a hearty chortle.
All in all, this is a confident and solid production, and we have only one damning criticism to make: it is funny, when it should have been hilarious.
A Midsummer Night's Dream runs at Shakespeare's Globe, Bankside, until 12 October. Tickets £5-£39. For more information see the Shakespeare's Globe website. Londonist saw this performance on a complimentary press ticket.
By Janina Matthewson