For theatregoers, nothing signals summer is just around the corner like the start of a new season at the Globe. It’s a venue with a special atmosphere when the weather plays its part, as it did last night.
If there’s an extra frisson of expectation this year, it’s because this is the inaugural production of new artistic director Emma Rice, who previously demonstrated her fearless and unique approach to the job at the Cornwall-based Kneehigh Theatre.
For her first play on the Southbank, Rice serves up a wonderfully bonkers version of Shakespeare’s most bonkers play. Her A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a colourful, vibrant, rowdy and sometimes chaotic assault on the senses — a mélange of Bollywood, Beyoncé, Bowie and George Formby. Did I mention there’s a spaceman?
Meow Meow as Titania and Nandi Bhebhe as First Fairy
From the outset, we know this is not going to be a traditional version of the romantic fantasy because the whole space is decorated with giant orbs and a neon sign on stage proclaiming Oberon’s line “Rock the Ground”. The real-world characters are Hoxton hipsters and only the faeries wear traditional Elizabethan dress (with a twist), while the use of microphones and a sophisticated lighting system take it even further away from what Globe audiences are used to.
Rice plays around with gender, too. Helena becomes Helenus (Ankur Bahl) in a gay relationship; Puck (Katy Owen) is a stroppy teen in glittery trainers; and Peter Quince, leader of the now mostly female Mechanicals, becomes Rita (a delightful comic turn from Lucy Thackeray).
Cabaret artiste Meow Meow proves an inspired piece of casting as Hippolyta and Titania, a sultry and charismatic presence in killer heels and leopard-skin print. She also reveals a gift for physical comedy. The scene where she struggles to divest herself of clothing in the passionate pursuit of Bottom is pure bedroom farce.
The ideas come thick and fast and not all of them hit the target. By the time everyone launches into a rendition of David Bowie’s Space Oddity, you start to wonder if this is quirky for quirky’s sake.
To say this production of the Dream is not one for purists hardly covers it — Puck’s closing “if we shadows have offended” speech will certainly resonate with some. But Rice has started her tenure with a production that is never ever dull and laugh-out-loud funny more often than not.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream is at The Globe until 11 September