Midnight proves the perfect time to catch Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Globe Theatre: hilarity ensues, and a riotous group of groundlings keep things fun.
A Midnight Midsummer. Combine Shakespeare’s Globe, Shakespeare’s most performed play, and a riotous group of groundlings (they heeded the BYOB on that RSVP) and you have all the ingredients for an entertaining night at the theatre. Shakespeare provides the star-crossed lovers: Demetrius (unrequited love!) and Lysander (requited love!) are both in love with Hermia. Helena is desperately in love with Demetrius, but Hermia’s father wants sher to marry Demetrius, and the law is on his side. The lovers escape into the woods, where fairies (who are also fighting each other) use magic flowers in an attempt to realign their infatuations. Meanwhile a cast of amateur actors called the Rude Mechanicals rehearse their play-within-a-play, and ridiculousness ensues. Sprinkle in a live band, technicolor designs, and a cast that never misses a joke… and it tips over into hilarious.
Midsummer remains Shakespeare’s most performed play, internationally. (Currently, there are at least 3 productions in London: Shakespeare’s Globe, The Bridge Theatre, and Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre.) This version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream is the most dreamlike I’ve seen. It’s full of psychedelic colors, beer-drinking groundlings, and updated pop culture references.
A midnight matinee: the perfect time for Midsummer
I can’t imagine a better time to watch this Midsummer than at the midnight matinee; the experience definitively refutes any claims that theater as a medium is dead. It becomes a party, a whirlwind celebration of Shakespeare, comedy, and theatre that never lets up. Shocked gasps and “oohs” abound at the “sick burns” in the Helena/Hermia fight.
The cast itself clearly has fun throughout the show. Each actor plays Puck at some point, signalled when they don a spray-painted PUCK t-shirt. At each show, an audience member is pulled onstage to join the Rude Mechanicals as Robin Starveling; at my showing, he was a hilariously bemused fellow who constantly drew laughs. Cheers erupted incredibly often: for the live band, the air mattress (just go see it), Lysander’s musical seduction attempts, and triumphantly delivered lines, like Helena’s call to action: “We should be wooed!”
The loudest cheers were reserved for Jocelyn Jee Esien as Bottom, the lead actor-turned-donkey who is doted upon by the love-blinded fairy queen. Her bits are unrelenting and uproarious: telling an audience member “call me” — the same one, multiple times — riffing on a bit where she speaks French (which is not the only non-English language deployed at some point in the production!), singing from The Lion King (this makes sense, in context), and insisting on pronouncing the “ue” in prologue… that is, “prolog-YOU ” (this does not need to make sense; it is purely humorous).
Another standout actress is Amanda Wilkin as Helena, whose spaniel speech lingers as an empowering and deeper moment. Wilkin delivers the speech with a knowing eye roll, signaling to the audience that Shakespeare’s ridiculousness cannot be taken literally — because how can you say, “The more you beat me, I will fawn on you” seriously in 2019?
The production is carried by its strong performers and commitment to comedy, but the latter causes it to remain superficial, neither fully developing characters nor engaging with the play’s problematic patriarchs. The production works the comedy so hard that we don’t deeply emotionally connect with any character, because we don’t get to know them beyond their bits or plot contributions to the comedy of errors.
The only actor who does not lean into the frenetic comedy, Peter Bourke, plays both Theseus and Oberon as if he were being directed in an entirely different production: stiff, old-fashioned Shakespearean acting… and more or less forgettable. Consequently, the men with the most power in this play — the authoritarian patriarch (Theseus) and the master fairy forest manipulator (Oberon) — end up feeling outdated and boring, a jarring contrast to their oppressive power in the narrative. The wooing and imprisonment of Hippolyta is heightened — the play quite literally opens with her in a cardboard box — but the production never pushes back against that story, dramaturgically. Since the production looks like a modern rave, the draconian rules of Athenian society are hard to understand. The audience is expected to unquestioningly accept these contradictions so the rest of the actors can have fun.
And with the most riotous audience I can remember seeing in the theatre, it seems to have worked. The Globe’s Midsummer is theatrical entertainment without being a musical (OK, they do all sing at the very end, and yes, it’s very well done, and no, it is not necessary, especially when it is nearing 3 a.m.). While this production may not hit certain deep, emotionally resonant moments, it doesn’t need to. It’s a joyous party: a psychedelic woodland fairytale that keeps Shakespeare’s most performed story fresh and exciting.