“You look like you’re going to a festival.”
They were the first words directed at me by a colleague on the morning of Tuesday 10th July. I looked down at the thick black leggings, bright blue knee-length dress (just-smart-enough-for-the-office-on-a-weekday), cardigan, long stripy socks and the pink timberlands I was wearing. The large flowery bag on my arm, bulging with yet more “layers,” a picnic blanket and snacks added to the overall ‘look’. Fair Point.
I shrugged, “I’m not… I’m going to the Open Air Theatre after work… Midsummer Night’s Dream.”
My aforementioned colleague’s eyes looked me over again, and then pointedly turned towards the window.
Rain… like I hadn’t noticed.
When a friend and I booked our tickets (in April) we imagined pre-production sunbathing, a Regents Park picnic, Pimms, sunglasses and defining goddamn cultured-hippy-coolness! BUT, the only reliable thing about an English summer is it’s unreliability; I had a day of looking ridiculous in the office and a fun-filled evening of Nandos, Tea, Umbrellas, Waterproofs and LAYERS ahead of me.
Admittedly, I am not an avid Shakespeare fan; although I studied English I avoided all Shakespeare modules like the plague at University. I have always found people that quote from the bard in casual conversation (for no more reason than to look smug) incredibly annoying and have been tempted to take my shoe off and thwack them around the ear (as I’m sure would have happened to authentic Elizabethan insufferable know-it-alls).
When a friend of mine from University started working at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre, another ex-classmate and I immediately decided that stalking her at work would be wicked-good fun. Being a culture-vulture for the evening would be an added bonus, I decided. I put little thought or expectation into whether I would enjoy the production and just assumed it would go into a long list of bog-standard, mediocre Shakes-periences that just were not my cup of tea (right behind the Dicaprio version of Romeo and Juliet, that David Tennant adaptation of I-can’t-remember-what that was shown one Christmas and studying Merchant of Venice at school).
Gladly, I spent 2 and a half hours being pleasantly surprised and fully engaged. This is Shakespeare how I have never seen it before, a happy medium between the unimaginative moving-through-the-motions of a BBC Sunday-afternoon special and the American 1990’s chick-flick interpretations (‘Get Over It, 10 Things I Hate About You’… with me?) that entertained me as a tween. This adaptation of Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream was not the static re-hash of a play seen a thousand times before. It is topical, fresh and (most importantly) hilarious!
This adaptation has treated the play as what it first and foremost is; a comedy. Matthew Dunster has nailed what will tickle our fancy in his Big Fat Gypsy vehicle and not-so-subtle satire of recent pop culture such as Diversity and Evolution of Dance. The actors work best when they fully embrace the TOWIE/Gypsy characters they embody. Rebecca Oldfield as Helena is particularly talented. She totters around after Demetrius in ridiculous heels and chest out in the greatest slapstick fashion. Her paranoid lamentation that Hermia is involved in a complex plot against her (“It is not friendly, it is not sisterly”) is delivered with a venom that could be a replica of a Sugar Hut outburst. Highly satirised, highly over the top and highly hilarious! George Bukhari also brings a campness and childlike enthusiasm to Bottom that is fascinating to watch and lends itself to some laugh out loud moments.
All this Gypsy-hijinks is juxtaposed with the fairy world. I shan’t give away the way in which the set moves between the two as it is perhaps the most perfectly seamless and simplistic piece of transitional set design I have ever seen and all in a relatively small space. I was left open-mouthed.
The fairies are creepy. They also deliver the most straight-Shakespeare and would do some work to satisfy the purists. Occasionally these scenes made for uncomfortable viewing, however they were the most surreal and the most dreamlike.
Speaking of the purists, I overheard some grumbling on the way out of the theatre that Shakespeare would never have intended Beyonce to be included. Snobbery I say. Shakespeare intended A Midsummer Night’s Dream to be funny. Quite naturally, the 21st century theatre-goer finds their humour in different places than the Elizabethean, and personally Dunster is quite right that watching uncoordinated workmen do the Single Ladies Dance at a gypsy wedding is hilarious. Get off your high horse anonymous Shakespeare purist, we all know Wills was a lad, he’d find it hilarious.
I will end this post where I started; the rain. Yes, this wasn’t the idyllic Midsummer evening that I had planned. Rather than stumbling home drunk on British summer and Pimms I found myself huddled in a hoodie, waterproof and umbrella rushing towards the nearest tube. However I think it speaks volumes for the Open Air Theatre as a venue that it really didn’t matter. The cast and the staff were the epitome of Keep Calm and Carry On (which I’m sure they’ve had to do a lot of this summer.) In fact, in many ways the rain added to the eerie atmosphere of the play, giving it a further dream-like quality. Even pathetic fallacy was applied (if my GSCE English memory serves me correctly) that was completely unplanned; it POURED during Hermia and Helena’s cat-fight! Whatever the weather, man up and brave the elements guys, this adaptation it truly worth frizzy hair and a damp bottom. Yes it would have been nice if it was sunny, but it was HILARIOUS to see my Uni friend forced to peddle ice cream in the interval!