A Midsummer Night’s Dream; Cruise review – a tale of two audiences

As if by magic, after nights of rain, the clouds lifted for the re-opening of the Globe. Well, A Midsummer Night’s Dream is Shakespeare’s climate-change play. The groundlings did not need the theatre’s ponchos but they did have to adapt to Covid regulations. For the first time in the Globe’s 24-year history, no standing was allowed. Socially distanced chairs resulted in a more passive crowd. Though one audience member was co-opted into the action, the particular extra pulse of the Globe – with spectators pressing against the stage and suddenly becoming still – was missing.

Sean Holmes’s boisterous production, first staged in 2019, does not make much of the nightmare aspects of Shakespeare’s dream. In carnival spirit, everything is on the go. Audibly, with the Hackney Colliery Band. And visually with designer Jean Chan’s explosions of colour. The animating spirit is not so much transformation as costume change. Titania totters in silver boots and a headdress proclaiming “Queen”; she nods off in a wheely bin. The fairies are got up like piñatas in primary-coloured ruffles; Peter Bourke’s nicely nasty Theseus is prurient in a salmon pink military uniform.

Unusually, the mechanicals come off best. Rachel Hannah Clarke is appealing in a pink tutu as Snug the joiner and in the play within the play as a lion singing Wimoweh. Jacoba Williams makes a comic “wall” in a white onesie. As Bottom, Sophie Russell provides the best verse-speaking of the evening. Remembering with wonder what it was like being an ass, she rightly trusts the audience to respond to wistfulness as well as roisterousness.

At the West End’s small Duchess theatre, the audience was evident in a different manner. Immediately in front of me a row of people took off their masks to have the drinks they were not allowed to consume at the bar. Not against the rules, but distractingly against the habit of a year to be so near the open mouths of strangers.

Jack Holden’s play is a Covid creation: a monologue written during the first lockdown that, in conjuring memories of the onslaught of Aids in London during the 80s, reverberates in a time of pandemic. Yet Cruise, based on a real-life account told to Holden when he was operating a LGBTQ+ switchboard, does not have the sealed-in quality of early digital monologues. Its action moves around central London streets and clubs, though Nik Corrall’s wood scaffolding design is, even when neon-lit, too Wendy house for Soho. Its memories are expanded by music: composer John Elliott performs live on stage and Holden sings – to haunting effect in his delivery of the treacherously sweet Always On My Mind.

Though there is only one actor, there are several voices. Directed by Bronagh Lagan, Holden conjures up sauna boys as well as old Soho in the shape of Fat Sandy (“He took me under his bingo wings”) and the gay slang of the Colony Room: “I shall have to have a polari with that meese butch queen on the door.” He evokes years when his friends seemed always to wear black. Though he sometimes overwrites – the rhythm can throb repetitively and the adjectives rarely come singly – Holden performs with candour and excitement. He has earned his audience.

Star ratings (out of five)
A Midsummer Night’s Dream

A Midsummer Night’s Dream is at Shakespeare’s Globe, London, until 30 October

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