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 The Theatreguide.London Review

In March 2020 the covid-19 epidemic forced the closure of all British theatres. Some companies adapted by putting archive recordings of past productions online, others by streaming new shows. Until things return to normal we review the experience of watching live theatre onscreen.

A Midsummer Night's Dream
Shakespeare's Globe and BBC Culture In Quarantine 2020

Emma Rice directed this Dream in 2016 as her debut as Artistic Director of Shakespeare's Globe. Her tenure did not last long, largely because lively and inventive productions like this violated the long-held Globe policy of making Shakespeare as dull as possible.

It also broke with Globe tradition by making inventive use of the unique theatre rather than just repeating the sort of productions that could as easily been done on conventional stages. Fortunately we have this delightful video record of how much fun a Globe production can be.

Rice sets the tone with an original comic bit in which what purport to be Globe staff put a fresh twist on the standard No Photos No Phones announcement. They will return a scene later as modern-day versions of Shakespeare's rude mechanicals Bottom the Health And Safety Officer, Snug the Cleaner, and the like.

Meanwhile the opening scene established that Shakespeare's ancient Athens is now modern London. Theseus and Hippolyta are an East End gangster and his floozy, Demetrius is a Hoxton hipster and, in a twist that proves surprisingly easy to fit in, Helena is now gay male Helenus.

Director Rice places a couple of big tables out in the audience, and these become satellite stages, allowing the actors to pop up or move around among the groundlings, interacting with them and unforcedly and enjoyably breaking the fourth wall.

Every opportunity in the text for a song or dance is made use of, and the exotic and magical atmosphere of the fairy-filled forest is enhanced by the presence on an upper stage of a sitar player.

So the whole thing is a constantly surprising and entertaining delight and this is so even though there is nothing particularly special about any of the individual performances.

As is now standard practice, the two royal couples are doubled, but neither Zubin Varla as Theseus and Oberon or Meow Meow as Hippolyta and Titania really distinguish much between their two characters. The two men are both crude tough guys, the two women both floozies.

Varla is hardly stretched by his roles and Meow Meow, a talented and charismatic cabaret performer, seems woefully underused in hers.

Katy Owen makes Puck exhaustingly manic throughout, with insufficiently-developed hints of a passionate desire to please her master, but Ewan Wardrop's Bottom is just an amiable and somewhat anonymous nice guy.

Ankur Bahl successfully walks the thin line of making Helenus comically gay without falling over into stereotype, but Edmund Derrington, Ncuti Gatwa and Anjana Vasan can't do much to individualise the other three lovers.

This is a case of a whole that is bigger than its parts, a director's triumph that proves that imagination, entertainment and Shakespeare are not mutually exclusive.

The multi-camera, multi-microphone video version not only catches all the close-up action you could wish, but also captures the spirit and experience of being in the Globe audience.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review of  A Midsummer Night's Dream - Globe online 2020