Currently A Midsummer Night’s Dream is the Shakespeare show I have seen the most versions of. I have seen it done with punk faeries, I’ve seen it in the 1920s, and I’ve performed it with a yoga ball set to name a few. I love this show so much and I was ecstatic to be given to opportunity to experience the Globe Theatre’s re-imagining of it this year.
Emma Rice’s debut as artistic director at the Globe presented a Midsummer which I would describe as a cross between Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge and a Bollywood movie. It was full of colour and momentum and flash. Rice’s Midsummer sparked a lot of conversations about the Globe’s purpose in the theatre world at large and about how Shakespearean shows should or should not be presented.
Now before I left for my trip I read an article that pitted traditionalists against modernisers by Michael Henderson. His argument was that unless you stick to the original material and how it is – ahem – meant to be presented then it loses its magic. Now I do not completely disagree with what Henderson says in the article. Rice has openly admitted to not being a Shakespeare expert and explained “I’m the person in the room going, ‘I don’t understand that line.’ And all the actors tell me what it means. I need more help than others.” Henderson outlines this as a fault in Rice’s ability to work with Shakespeare.
I think my opinion falls somewhere in the middle. I believe Shakespeare’s writing deserves a certain amount of respect. But performing Shakespeare doesn’t have to be treated so seriously. As someone who has seen multiple versions of Midsummer, it is very refreshing to see new adaptions. The fault in Henderson’s argument resides in the belief that everything you could ever get from a Shakespeare show resides in the text and performing it in a traditional way. I’m half on board with this and half on another island of thought.
You cannot make a theme appear from Shakespeare that does not appear in the text. You just cannot make something appear from nothing. So that’s what I mean when I say the text needs to be respected. But that does not mean you can’t play around with the text and warp it to explore a theme that you found in the text. Changing the context of a Shakespeare show can bring themes to the forefront that an audience may not have considered before.
One of the most impactful changes that Rice made to Midsummer was changing the character of Helena to Helenus. One gender swapped role completely changed how I saw the character of Helena (who is already my favourite character in that show). I am head over heels for this change! Suddenly Demetrius shunning Helenus is not about a guy favouring his former lady’s friend but a commentary on what Demetrius sees as an acceptable relationship in his society. It provides a much more sympathetic explanation for Demetrius’ actions.
The only thing I wish they had played up more was the attraction between Helenus and Demetrius before the love potion. I always take issue when this is not done because then it feels like Demetrius has just been falsely led back into the romance with Helena/Helenus. (Sorry Shakespeare – not even the “But like in sickness” speech can help the ending from ringing untrue if we don’t see hints of feelings before the love potion).
Now let’s talk about having fun with Shakespeare! The best Shakespeare shows are not afraid to experiment and they make bold character choices. Katy Owen played Puck in this production and hands down she is the best Puck I have ever seen. She blew me away with her incredible energy and audience interactions. She described her rehearsal process and spoke about how “you just have to trust that little discoveries that you made in improvisations will be there, somehow in your muscle memory or whatever it might be. They come out as you start to speak the text.” Memorizing the text is only half the job with Shakespeare. The other half is just having fun with it and developing your own version of a character. In Owen’s version of Puck, she put a banana in a man’s mouth, unpeeled it, and then ate some of it. I mean, if you want a mischievous Puck then Owen’s had it down pat.
The Mechanical’s were also a riot. They were presented as Globe employees led by Rita Quince (love that gender swapping!). The shining moment for them was certainly their production of Pyramus and Thisbe. The costumes alone had me roaring. The lion’s costume consisted of a bunch of yellow rubber gloves and Moonshine’s outfit was just a straight up astronaut to articulate the man in the moon. The only thing I will say was that I got tired of the improv lines. I think they just could have scaled back on that.
One of the other changes that Rice made was introducing new lighting into the Globe theatre to create a more colourful world for Midsummer. People took issue with this by claiming it went against the original mission of the Globe. The theatre is a reconstruction by Sam Wanamaker and part of the reason for building the theatre was to make it a “focal point for the study of Shakespeare in performance.” The Globe’s website includes that explicitly in their mission statement. To many folks the purpose of the Globe is to see traditional Shakespearean theatre. They want to see plays the way they would have been presented during Shakespeare’s own time.
This is an interesting discussion. If I put on my history student hat, I see the importance of a place doing accurate recreations of Shakespearean plays. Theatre is incredibly difficult to archive. It is performed and then the play is struck and then it is just gone. A place like the Globe allows people to see performances how people in the Elizabethan era would have enjoyed them.
By adding new lighting and adding microphones for actors, you are diminishing the authenticity which separates the Globe from other theatres that perform Shakespeare. The Globe is a reconstruction but it is the closest thing we have to an authentic Elizabethan theatre experience. We can learn a lot from traditional theatre productions of Shakespeare from the clothing to the staging to the props. While I’m obviously pro-adaption, I wonder if this undermines an educational experience available only at a theatre like the Globe.
So does producing boundary pushing theatre at the Globe require sacrificing an audience’s ability to see and learn about traditional Shakespearean performance? Something to think about.
(Here’s me at the Globe – totally chill. So calm. The rest of the photos belong to Steve Tanner.)
The Globe’s purpose outlined:
Q&A with Emma Rice:
Interview with Katy Owen: