All change. Emma Rice’s inaugural production as artistic director of Shakespeare’s Globe is a bit of a ground-shaker. Her take on A Midsummer Night’s Dream is going to piss off as many people as it delights, but that’s part of its brilliance. This is living theatre, hot-blooded and hot-bodied, a production that feels utterly at home in the space while also challenging people’s perceptions of what the Globe is for.
It sets out its stall from the start. There are silvered trees outside the doors and a sitar player perched above the stage. The mechanicals are a troupe of Globe ushers; Bottom is in charge of health and safety, and Rita Quince admonishes the groundlings to switch off their phones and refrain from copulating in the yard.
Original practice is out of the window, doublet and hose have been swapped for leopard print and leather jackets. The text has been scissored and shaken up; there are references to Hoxton and hipsters in there; there are unexpected detours into John Donne. There is a lot of singing.
But then Rice has always been a mistress of collage. With Kneehigh, which she joined in 1994 and became artistic director of in 2005, her work has constantly drawn on the cinematic and the literary. She’s directed versions of Tristan and Yseult, Don John, and Rapunzel. Her adaption of Brief Encounter played both in the West End – in a central London cinema specially repurposed for the show – and Studio 54 on Broadway. She’s tackled The Red Shoes and Rebecca; she’s even had a go at Steptoe and Son. Kneehigh’s world was one of Powell and Pressburger, Hitchcock and Angela Carter. Her work with the company, at its best, combined circus and magic and music hall, it was red-shoed and feather-bedecked, mirror-balled and fairy-lit.
What Kneehigh didn’t really do was Shakespeare. Though the company contributed to the RSC’s Complete Works season in 2006, it was with a (very) free adaptation of Cymbeline by regular collaborator Carl Grose. Half pantomime, half musical, it saw Hayley Carmichael’s Imogen stalking the stage in a hoodie. (It’s clearly a play that fascinates her; Rice’s inaugural season ends with reworked and retitled version of the play, now called Imogen). In the past Rice has described Shakespeare as medicinal. She’s said reading the plays make her sleepy. No one, I’d venture, is going to sleep through this.
In Rice’s Dream, Titania’s Indian changeling child, a Shakespearean MacGuffin if ever there was one, has somehow become the spirit of the piece. Rice is collaborating once again with Tanika Gupta, whose 2013 play The Empress she directed for the Royal Shakespeare Company, and the whole thing has the feel and energy of an Indian wedding.
Theatre often talks a good game about accessibility and diversity but this production just gets on and does it. Since being appointed artistic director in 2015, Rice has spoken a lot about gender imbalance and representation, about the way we people our stages – particularly in regard to the performance of Shakespeare – and she addresses all these things in this production.
Puck is a water pistol-wielding Katy Owen in a vast ruff and gold sneakers; her Puck might be a glitter-slippered imp but she is not immune to human emotion and has a few moments of real poignancy.
The further into the forest we go the more the production flirts with Elizabethan costume. The fairies wear Helena Bonham Carter’s cast-off dresses bedecked with nipple tassels, and the cabaret artist Meow Meow, who also featured in Kneehigh’s under-appreciated take on The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (admittedly an odd fit for the West End), plays Titania with all the verve and irreverence you’d expect. She fairy-surfs across the stage and proves that even queens struggle to take their tights off in anything remotely resembling an erotic manner.
The gender-flexible casting goes both ways. Ankur Bahl plays Helenus, which proves to be something of a masterstroke. Not only is he amiable, engaging and clear-voiced, but the tangled scenes between the four lovers feel refreshed by his presence. The sudden shifts from intense sexual heat to guilt and aggression all gain a new kind of clarity.
Vesturport designer Borkur Jonsson has filled the Globe with white orbs and green tubing which mirror the pillars while also looking a bit like bamboo or the passages through which alien eggs might descend. It somehow manages to feel quite fitting. Music by Stu Barker – another Kneehigh regular – pulses through the show. Rice doesn’t tiptoe around the play’s songs. They’re not a problem to be solved. They’re vital. They’re oxygen.
Not everything Rice throws at it sticks. The obligatory Bowie moment feels grafted on and just like Jamie Lloyd’s Doctor Faustus, this production over-estimates the entertainment value of men in their pants; Rice also repurposes the striking final image from Nights at the Circus – two lovers suspended, eternally coupling and uncoupling in mid-air – but it has less of an impact the second time around. There also needs to be a moratorium on theatre directors using Beyonce’s Single Ladies in an attempt to make Elizabethan and Jacobean plays resonate – enough is enough, just stop it.
Those things aside, this is joyful stuff. Rice is the third artistic director of the Globe, after Mark Rylance and Dominic Dromgoole. Rylance was a hard act to follow, in more ways than one, but Dromgoole managed it, embarking on increasingly ambitious projects, such as Globe to Globe and his two-year world tour of Hamlet while making big and broad, appealing and embracive theatre of his own. Rice, in turn, has found a way to channel something of the Kneehigh spirit into the space, while still making theatre that works on the Globe’s terms. Attend and mark, Emma Rice now owns this glorious ‘o’. She rules.