The German traveller Paul Henzner, visiting London just before Shakespeare’s Globe opened, counted ‘above thirty’ heads of traitors on spikes on gate at the south end of London Bridge. This summer’s pop-up Shakespeare’s Rose Theatre, which has just opened in York for a summer season, makes do with four to guard its entrance. It’s a nice historical touch.
The idea is simple: recreate something like an Elizabethan playhouse in a prime location, well away from London. Set it in a fenced compound where you can buy Yorkshire food and drink and watch Shakespeare snippets (on my visit there was a ‘Wheel of Shakespeare’ random scenes generator in full swing). Make sure there’s plenty of information about the project and Shakespearean historical context to nudge it away from ye olde theme park.
The theatre itself is imaginatively inspired by what we know about Elizabethan public playing places. There are more ways onto and off the stage than you’d see at Shakespeare’s Globe in London. You’re closer to the stage, and it doesn’t thrust out into the audience like the Globe’s does. But not every Elizabethan stage was like this, as recent archaeological discoveries at the Curtain in Shoreditch show. Shakespeare’s Rose Theatre is the kind of flexible space that Shakespeare’s plays were written to work in.
The stage is set. And this production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream certainly delivers. It’s ambitious, great to look at, funny, smart, and just a little Queer. A play ending with so many weddings (and, ahem, whatever Bottom gets up to with Titania) runs the risk of being driven by easy rom-com laughs. But director Juliet Forster is far more interested in exploring a transgressive, unsettling Dream. The Fairies are a million miles away from the annoying Tinkerbell gauzy winged stereotype. Sara Perks’ costume design makes them creatures of the forest floor, covered in moss, horns, bits of found wood. Their padded breeches reference both satyrs’ legs and Elizabethan fashion. Her design for the forest in which most of the action takes place uses a dozen ropes attached at various angles to balconies, stairs and stage, now entangling briars, now the launch pad for multi-level Fairy acrobatics. Philippa Vafadari’s spooky, angular, choreography gives them a genuine sense of physical otherness which makes their near-continual presence onstage for most of the show fascinatingly watchable. There’s an element of circus aerialism, too; these Fairies not only fly but climb into the sky.
It looks wonderful. And don’t worry about this overpowering the play. Everything you already like about it works like a dream. There is plenty of bravura comic acting, with some neat physical gagging, from both the lovers and the ‘rude Mechanicals’ who end the play with their own theatricals.
The really thought-provoking element in the production is its casting of what are often seen as minor roles. The Athenian king Theseus is to marry an unwilling bride, Hippolyta, and the fairy king and queen, Oberon and Titania, are at war over who gets a particularly beautiful boy as servant. It’s common to double Theseus and Oberon, and Hippolyta and Titania, to point up the parallels between these couples at war. But this production makes Amanda Ryan both the unhappy Hippolyta and the sardonic Fairy king Oberon. Antony Bunsee, as the initially coercive Theseus, then becomes the queen of the Fairies, and falls in love with an ass, amusedly watched by Ryan as Oberon. Gender is up for grabs, it seems.
It’s a big stage to fill, but then this is the first production I’ve ever seen with eight Fairies. It’s a real pleasure to watch such a skilled ensemble work together (pretty much everyone doubles, with most of the Fairies also playing Mechanicals). The adaptability of the stage has clearly freed the imaginations of the choreographer, director, and designer. It is straight enough for those who like their Shakespeare straight up, and weird enough for the rest of us. My one cavil is that the noise from the generators did once or twice make it difficult to catch what was being said.
Photos by Anthony Robling