Title: A Midsummer Night's Dream
Writer: William Shakespeare and Patrick Cash and company
Director: Nick Connaughton
Performed by: Arcola Queer Directive
Cast: Sheena Anyanwu, Diego Benzoni, Miss Cairo, Daniel Correia, Anthony Cranfield, Vickie Dillon, Rudi Douglas, Camilla Harding, James Hartley, Stuart Honey, Damien Hughes, Krishna Istha, Rubyyy Jones, Damien Kileen, Bex Large, Phil Rhys Thomas.
Seen at: Arcola Theatre
Review: Hermia and Lysander are a happy couple, much to the protests of Hermia's homophobic mother Egeus. Helena is a young man in love with Demetrius, who pushes him away. The couples all get mixed up at a nightclub, La Forêt, when the owner Oberon uses Puck to matchmake. Meanwhile, Oberon's relationship to his wife Titania is breaking down over the care of an abducted Irish musician, while the backstage team of La Forêt prepare for their turn in the spotlight. Through Shakespearean verse and contemporary additions, A Midsummer Night's Dream is a tale of love, relationships, and how that all works out.
I was very excited for this. Midsummer is one of my favourite Shakespeare plays, and the fact that they were making it to include queer characters and modernised made me even more interested.
I'm glad I knew it had added monologues before going in. I wouldn't have hated it if I hadn't, I would just have been puzzled to start with. The monologues are good additions, and I'll come to them later.
We're introduced to the last night of La Forêt. Introducing Puck as the in house drug dealer sets the tone. Then for the rest of the play, which happens mostly as Shakespeare intended, with some flashback scenes and speeches added in.
I like most of the new characterisations. The Mechanicals have a weird love triangle/pining thing going on (Flute loves Quince, Snug makes physical moves on Quince, I'm not sure whether Quince reciprocates either of them. It's not really explored, or maybe I didn't notice it ) but they do produce a good play by the end of it. Theseus and Hippolyta were...bizarre. Were they high? Their comments are amusing ("Hermia can go to a convent or die" "That's a bit much." And "I will kiss the wall's hole" "Shakespeare is a pervert") but I'm not sure where their characters were going.
Other characters get better development. Puck is a cabaret, Doctor Frankenfurter like figure, introduced by a monologue of how he ran away then got into this culture. Hermia talks about her relationship with her mother. Helena's speech about porn and falling for Demetrius is funny and makes you love him. Bottom comes out of character and delivers a passionate speech, including poetry, about their identity and society, which I thought was a brilliant performance.
There are four characters that this production of Midsummer changed my views on. First, Demetrius, who from the Shakespeare is normally one of my lesser favourites due to him being a bit of an asshole. Here, his speech about HIV gives him a reason for pushing Helena away, despite his feelings for him, and does not make him seem heartless.I also liked it because Oberon, listening to this speech, now has a more valid reason to work to get Helena and Demetrius together and finally yay bisexual visibility. Then there's Oberon and Titania, who are again a warring couple, but there's a confrontation scene at the start of the second half between them that is distinctly modern and pulls up the issues in their lives as they discuss the family and identity they left behind and how to go forwards. We see more flaws in both their characters than from the Shakespeare, and added new levels of manipulativeness, and I liked the new take on the relationship. Finally, there's the kidnapped boy they're fighting over-Irish here, as opposed to Indian, and given a chance to talk about his new life and chemsex, as opposed to being namedropped and maybe brought on with the fairies. He also provides really good keyboard and singing.
The staging of this is good. They stay mostly on the main stage but sometimes use the upper level, where the Irish Boy and keyboard is stationed, and an aisle, for the flashbacks.I also enjoyed the little bits of audience interaction which made it more inclusive, but not so much to intrude on the main action.
They make full use of innuendo in the Pyramus and Thisbe scene, and the Titania and Bottom seduction scene, providing adult physical comedy that differs to the comedy I'm used to seeing from Midsummer (and the comedy that others are used to too-the performance I was at saw a group of old people leave for the interval and not come back).
The comedy is less present in the lover's fight scene, when Lysander and Demetrius are both artifically in love with Helena, while Hermia looks on. I think it might be because it takes the bad situation for Hermia (having both her suitors completely change tack and court her best friend Hermia) and makes it worse because there's something a little more heartwrenching as her girlfriend Lysander (who I think might have been a lesbian?) starts wooing a gay boy, and the friendship and romance falls apart.
I think the strength of this performance is that they take the issues surrounding courtship and marriage that are present in the Shakespeare, and look at the issues surrounding courtship and marriage today, particularly within the queer community.
Overall: Strength 4.5 tea to a play that easily weaves together Shakespearean and modern stories to create a play that is both funny and serious, but entirely powerful.
Arcola Queer Collective is currently performing Le Petit Prince, between 8 -13 February. More information here.