There has been much excitement, and a few rumblings of foreboding, at the appointment of Emma Rice as the new artistic director at Bankside’s Wooden O. The founder of playful Cornish company Kneehigh declared without embarrassment that she was unfamiliar with much of Shakespeare’s work, and that productions were too often hard, unrewarding work for audiences. She promised, as she announced her inaugural programme – titled the Wonder Season – to bring us fresh perspectives on the plays, with increased technical resources in a venue better known for recreating original practices, and an emphasis on gender and racially integrated casting. A fundamental misunderstanding of what the Globe is all about, some grumbled; but for the rest of us, Rice’s plans seemed to herald an invigorating new era for this theatre. So, with her first production, has she pulled it off? Could it be magic?
The answer is a qualified yes. Much about Rice’s ebullient take on this tale of love and lust is enormously enjoyable. It’s riotous, often enchanting and occasionally moving. But at times it’s also broad to the point of crassness, overworked and, at three hours’ running time, over-extended. Not every innovation thrown at the play elucidates. Which is not to say that the production isn’t, on the whole, great fun. But its over-strenuous efforts to capture our affections can be off-putting. Just like an over-eager admirer, it would win our hearts much more easily if it weren’t trying quite so hard.
The action in this version, created with the aid of dramaturg Tanika Gupta, zips between modern London, a funked-up Elizabethan theatrical fairyland and the stage of the Globe itself. Lysander and Demetrius are hipsters from Hoxton (East London’s hotbed of aching cool). The fairy folk wear ensembles that mix historical dress with burlesque – ruffs and doublets teamed with nipple tassels and fishnets. The Mechanicals, meanwhile, are a group of keen volunteer Globe stewards in branded t-shirts, all female except for Nick Bottom (Ewan Wardrop), a bumptious health-and-safety expert.
Borkur Jonsson’s set places them all beneath a canopy of bobbing white orbs, red neon and trailing Indian wedding garlands of bright blooms – a nod to the changeling boy over whom Titania and Oberon are at war – while Stu Barker’s music blends sitar and bhangra with lyrical English folk and snarling electic guitars. It’s all rather gorgeous, and there is a beguiling otherworldliness to the finest sequences that is truly transporting. The cabaret artiste Meow Meow, with her astonishing legs and feral, anarchic sexiness, is a furious conquered queen Hippolyta, in bodycon brocade and scarlet patent ankle-snapper heels. As Titania, she floats from the heavens in billows of silk, before losing her dignity when she falls for Bottom, becoming ludicrously entangled in her knickers and tights and stumbling about like a bombed, drunken seductress, hilarious and at the same time melancholy. Zubin Varla’s Oberon is full of lasciviousness and longing, as well as a dash of cruelty. And Katy Owen’s Puck, with her water pistol, faun-like horns and hotpants, is a cackling, crackling little ball of impish energy.
Rather less captivating are the quartet of lovers. The character of Helena is changed into a man and renamed Helenus (a camp Ankur Bahl), which adds a further layer of complexity to the sexual tensions and confusions. It’s a device that necessitates some textual contortions, but it works well enough, particularly at the play’s conclusion, which in this interpretation sees Ncuti Gatwa’s Demetrius coming to terms with his repressed homosexuality. Anjana Vasan is a sassy Hermia, and Edmund Derrington’s guitar-strumming Lysander has lanky charm. But none of them handles the text with enough conviction, their dropped cues and under-energised delivery a frustrating contrast to the zing that the staging as a whole aspires to.
There’s also some badly misjudged, almost pantomimic comic business that needlessly slows the plot’s progress and proves more toe-curling than side-splitting. Hermia and Helenus’ rendition of Beyonce’s "Single Ladies" routine is one such cringe-worthy instance. Puck breaking into Shaggy’s "Boombastic" is another, and while there are few circumstances in which I wouldn’t be happy to hear Bowie’s "Space Oddity," there’s no discernible reason why the Mechanicals should slaughter it here.
And yet for all that, when the mortals are reconciled and Oberon and Titania soar and tumble together, airborne on trapeze wires, in an aerial ballet of eroticism and devotion, the show has a dizzying romance. Is it flawed? Indisputably. But it is, in some sense, a celebration of imperfection – of human frailty, foolishness, passion and above all love – and as such, it’s difficult to resist.