A Midsummer Night’s Dream review – the Globe’s giddy return

A donkey-shaped piñata dangles above the stage. It’s a decent metaphor for this play’s colourful, sweet-centred festivities amid destruction. A Midsummer Night’s Dream chimes with lockdown nightmares of confinement and separated lovers, the discombobulation of a world turned upside down and climate chaos. But the Globe throws a party instead, reviving Sean Holmes’s ebullient 2019 Sueño, vibrantly designed by Jean Chan, as the venue reopens for the first time since the pandemic hit.

Nicholas Hytner, Dominic Hill y Joe Hill-Gibbins have all recently drawn out the play’s more troubling aspects; here we have bright bursts of dance, brass musicians (desde Hackney Colliery Band) who are partial to blasts of Jimi Hendrix, and goody-bag props including bubble guns, water pistols and starry headbands. It’s a fun night, lovably silly with some smart surprises, but doesn’t spin that difficult, delicate web required to let this enchanting play do more than amuse.

This is a production that answers Theseus’s request, in Act V, to “ease the anguish of a torturing hour” and prefers to see mischief not cruelty, light not darkness. Neither Titania’s astounded “forgeries of jealousy” vision nor Oberon’s “starry welkin” lines shift the mood much. Victoria Elliott and Peter Bourke play the fairy queen and king with comic skill but tension doesn’t crackle between them in those roles, or when they double as Hippolyta and Theseus.

Chairs are scattered across the yard, where groundlings have usually stood cheek by jowl. But performers, often masked, still weave their way through the thinned-out crowd and there’s an extended bit of audience participation for one groundling who joins the mechanicals. It’s played interval-free, fast and loose, with the decision to share the role of Puck among a handful of actors increasing the unpredictable, nimble nature of the show.

As Bottom, the weaver and over-eager actor, Sophie Russell is sublimely ridiculous. There is a sense that she is actively weaving the play’s comedy as she busies herself about the stage in gold-tipped trainers. She summons her lion’s roar as if from the groin and with the “French-crown-colour beard” line goes off-piste with double entendres and a dash of Edith Piaf. Transformed into a version of that piñata donkey, she almost floats with woozy love for Titania, whose carnivalesque fairies have party-hat heads with googly eyes. The four lovers wear black-and-white Bauhaus-style outfits (with nicely skewwhiff ruffs) that serve to accentuate Demetrius and Lysander’s similarity. Of that quartet, Shona Babayemi stands out as a spirited Helena.

Amor, says Helena, is “said to be a child” and the production is powered by youthful glee. You miss the poignancy and profundity but it’s an escapist treat – and standup George Fouracres is such a delight as the bellowing Flute that you even wish Pyramus and Thisbe lasted a little longer.

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