A perennial British favourite, watching Shakespeare performed alfresco in the summertime is something I had experienced before. However, the Globe on tour team must have known they were on to a very good thing when they secured the beautiful surroundings of Oxford’s Bodleian Library as the setting for their adaptation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
Occasionally I remember how lucky I am to live in this special city, and this play gave me more than just a gentle reminder. We walked into the Old Quadrangle, our enclosed venue for the evening. Halfway through the performance I looked up and wondered if there were hoards of people outside these great golden walls contemplating where on earth all this noise was coming from. It felt like the audience’s little secret; a piece of magic that we were sharing amongst ourselves.
The actors themselves were fabulously energetic and the entire show was witty, irreverent and utterly engaging from start to finish. The young cast bounced off the walls, the rigging and Lysander even managed to scale the Bodleian and lean precariously out of a third floor window. Actor Will Mannering, who played Egeus, spoke afterwards of how the cast is required to adapt to the set of each new location on tour: ‘the environment dictates the show’ he said, ‘we have the freedom to bring our own ideas and explore the play in new ways’.
And explore the play they did, to what can only be described as the highest standard. The eight cast members used various props, including wings, overalls and hats to move between roles seamlessly. There is one scene in particular, that where Helena is rightly confused by both Lysander and Demetrius’s new-found love for her, after Puck has unknowingly afflicted them with the magic of the flower given to her by Oberon, King of the Fairies, that encompasses the brilliant skill of the cast. Fearing she is being mocked by the previously dismissive men, Helena gives her speech whilst the lustful Lysander and Demetrius raunchily pursue her around the stage, removing their garments as they do so. Hilarity ensues as we watch the two desperate youths joust for her attention, playfully trying to outdo each other in the process. It’s always nice to see actors having fun playing their roles, and there is no doubt that the cast do here. Their faces and voices are expressive and comedic, just as the complex mid-sleep, mid-dream script demands. Director Raz Shaw clearly asks a lot of his talented cast, whilst simultaneously allowing them to inject their own wit through a surprising amount of improvisation.
A glass of mulled wine during the interval kept us warm and merry as the second half proceeded into the Oxfordshire night. We weren’t delightfully pissed, as my mother was when she saw the play on it’s opening night, but contentedly happy. Not adhering to her ‘but you have to be drunk when we watch Shakespeare don’t you, otherwise how do you even begin to feel like you understand it?’ mantra, I firmly believe this kind of experience to be about that warm feeling you get from being part of something unique. She was right not to take it too seriously, but I have a sneaking suspicion that the cultural fun of the outdoor Shakespearean play was partially lost on my mother and her trolleyed band of compatriots.
The magical thing about the Globe’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream is that it isn’t polished; it doesn’t set out to pay a wholehearted tribute to the vision many people have of The Bard on a pedestal. ‘It is as the play would have been performed five hundred years ago’ comments Shaw, ‘when Shakespeare wasn’t idolized akin to a God-like figure, bestowed with beyond human capabilities’. This allows the actors to have fun, not take themselves to seriously and not be scared of the text. It means that a female Puck, played by Bethan Walker, can gyrate around the stage in sequinned hotpants and suspenders and have a bit of cheeky banter with the male members of the audience’s front row (whose wives and girlfriends did not look impressed!). Puck is a mischievous character who encompassed just one of the play’s many elements which are perfectly realised in this adaptation.
We left the quad in a little bubble of pride and pleasure. There is no better way to spend an Oxford evening, and I speak for both locals and visitors to the city. The row of Americans behind us wooped with excitement and the Oxfordians next to us clapped equally as enthusiastically as we shared one of those enchanting, effortless experiences that one can only dream of on a hazy night in midsummer.