Shakespeare’s Globe, London – until 30 October 2021
Face it, this play’s a rom-com, a lark, a happy pretty way to blame the fickleness of young love on petulant fairies. It can be treated more solemnly, playing up the harshness of the Athenian court; or Helena, thinking herself mocked, can rise to something near tragedy; Oberon can be made maliciously, controllingly and humiliatingly sexist or – in the glorious Bridge production – cheekily flipped to become the victim of the trick himself.
But no need for any of that: perfectly valid to capitalise on the Globe’s natural festival jollity, festoon the forest with hippie-morris-clown trees of rags in every colour plus neon, and accompany it with a riotous brass ensemble, taking care to get them rousing up the audience beforehand with cries of “We’re back!” and enforced synchro-clapping rhythm exercises. Joyful it was, indeed, so that by the time the beginners are wheeled on in a big delivery box (very topical) we’re all up for a couple of hours of hard-sitting fun (no cushions owing to Covid, take your own).
The costumes from this 2019 production return exuberant (though the young lovers are in monochrome, with weird lopsided semi-ruffs, Demetrius looking as if recently assaulted by a swan). Mostly it’s all delightfully over the top and down the other side, sartorially speaking: a pink-satin Duke, Peter Quince in sparkly high boots, Bottom in shiny leopardprint leggings even before she is transformed into a giant pinata donkey (Sophie Russell is terrific, fearlessly authoritative).
The rude-mechanicals are great fun altogether, not least in casting an audience member into their number and forcing him onto a gold exercise-bike. Puck is multiple, clearly being a team of intern-pucks dashing around in T-shirts. Titania, her flowery bed a giant wheelie-bin, is crinolined and feathered; Oberon in his greenish hair and gold aureole surprisingly stately. Those two costumes made me realise that what I really want in life is this play done – as a musical – with Dolly Parton and Elton John as the fairy monarchs.
But for now, Sean Holmes’ cheerful romp will do to kick off a season which, if theatres know what they’re doing, will major on merriment not ‘issues’. Peter Bourke’s Oberon is the one who sticks in my mind: he catches some real Shakespearian nobility in his reproof of Puck’s mistake and in his final reconciliation. I’m all for exuberant youth, but sometimes an old-stager beautifully spoken and poised, is a treat. Looking him up, I learn that 50 years ago Bourke was Puck himself at drama school. He has a memoir about to be published. Which I am searching out now.