Wednesday, 11 May 2016

where the wild thyme blows

We're the mystery of the lake when the water's still.
We're the laughter in the twilight
You can hear behind the hill.
We'll stay around to watch you laugh,
Destroy yourselves for fun.
But, you won't see us, we've grown sideways to the sun.

The Globe Theatre, of course, is an educated guess of what Shakespeare's original theatre may have been like. Modern health and safety rules and regulations have played their part in bringing an approximation of what Elizabethan times may have been like to life. Illuminated signage, fire-retardant materials and modern backstage machinery help ensure that modern audiences can attempt to get near to the 'genuine' experience.

In my previous life I took a group of pupils up to the Globe for a workshop, I visited the theatre on various occasions but have never been to a performance there. Finally, yesterday, my wife and I were able to experience a production there. This was a thrill for us both and the fact that this year is the 400th anniversary of his death helped push us into going.

The current production of A Midsummer Night's Dream is not without its detractors and critics but it was a glorious first one to see. Just like Middle Class audiences in the Bard's time we sat on cushions and watched the groundlings getting soaked. Yes, typically after the best weekend weather of the year, the day we had booked to go to the Globe was a wet and dreary affair. Still, a quick lunch in the bar and we climbed to the top of the East Tower to take our bench in expectation for one of Shakespeare's lighter plays. Whilst the BBC trudges through the mud and blood of his History plays, no doubt reflecting their own bloody battle to the death with the current government, the Globe sought to update Shakespeare's play of fairy folk and lovelorn youths.

Emily Rice, the director of this production has attempted to update the play by setting it in a modern London - hence the "Hoxton Hipsters" instead of the Athenian youths - but has also brought in many other more contemporary themes and ideas. The bawdiness of the play is certainly brought out more than just in the obvious Titania/Bottom scenes. Whilst Oberon squeezes the potion onto Titania's eyes, his actions suggest its more of a date-rape drug. The changing of Helena into a male character and therefore the Demetrius/Helena pairing helps the audience keep up with who is who in the usually rather confusing (and boring) lover's scenes in the woods. Oberon's sexuality is played with too. His fondling of Demetrius as he tries to correct Puck's mistakes may be, at first, a little shocking to some. However, it does remind us of why he is so insistent that Titania hands over the Indian Changeling child. In Ancient Greece, older men often took younger boys as lovers and taught them the ways of the(ir) world. Not the sort of thing I mentioned much when teaching the play to younger students of course. It used to be bad enough when they realised how old Juliet was.

The current need to make Shakespeare more "diverse" leads to many slightly startling changes. Aegeus is played as a paraplegic and there are hints of honour killings. The main fairy, Mustardseed, suggests Voodoo rather than English fairyland, but what a great voice she has. The music was fabulous with much made of the popularity of Bollywood with the background drones of the sitar and the sudden outbursts of full-on Bollywood dancing and singing. Ewern Wardrop as Bottom has a nice line in George Formby pastiche which - in the very Shakesperean term - went over the heads of many younger members of the audience, I'm sure. At one point Bottom and the Mechanicals burst into a few verses from David Bowie's Space Oddity which confused the American couple in front of me. They left not long after. Still, to me it suggested not only an affectionate nod towards the thin white one but also a nod to the fact that the Dame had brought about a change in perception of androgyny, bisexuality  and theatricality all those years ago. I thought it was a lovely touch and it also made sense when the Moon was presented in the mise en abyme Pyramus and Thisbe. I always saw in that little playlet Shakespeare taking a swipe at himself and it works as a great parody of Romeo and Juliet, and I did teach that to kids.

At least one critic to my knowledge thought there was little "magic" in the production. I'm not sure many of us in the Globe yesterday missed that. I always thought that it is a dreamlike play and this production certainly had the mad swirl and surrealism of dreams. We weren't allowed to take photos during the performance of course but I've added a picture of the staging. The white balloons and green tubes represent the woodland trees (and allowed a slightly distorted view, interestingly enough) and the tables allowed much jumping on and off of stage therefore bringing the players amongst the crowd. You can just see one in the lower right of the photo - there were three set up offstage. The woods are the habitat of the fairy folk and the Dream really takes place within those woods. Personally, amongst those imagined trees and banks where the wild thyme blows there was magic enough. The dirty fairies and the glorious turn by Meow Meow as Titania in all her Burlesque charm and the licentiousness of the scenes with Bottom's Ass reminded me that fairyland was never really as effete and childlike as many think. Look again at the characters that populate Richard Dadd's The Fairy-Feller's Masterstroke and think of all the different types of magic folk that abound in myth. There was enough rough magic for me in the production. Nowadays the fairy folk are nowhere to be seen, maybe they've simply turned sideways to the sun so we can't see them anymore.

One more point to bring me back to where I started, the audience reaction was superb. From the cheering and spontaneous "Ugh!" from a student as the gay couple kissed to the interactions with Puck, I'm assuming that the Bard himself would have revelled in how much the audience got into this very modern and fun version of the play.

I once saw a production of AMND at Regent's Park open air behind the zoo. It was in the early 1980s and Robert Lindsay was Lysander. It was a fine performance but this new one showed how far we've come. Now I no longer teach I can enjoy watching Shakespeare for what it is and don't have to worry about how I can get the points over. I would loved to have been able to take a group of school kids along to this production and any teachers out there I would suggest you get onto the box office straight away. I have never felt anywhere near what it might have been like to see a play 400 years ago but this production helped get me a little nearer to what it may have been like.