Something being old is not an excuse to present a now unsettling subtext. Not everything can be played only for laughs. You can’t say anything just because it’s Shakespeare.
There’s a lot to be said for Emma Rice’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Globe. It is full of joy, a vibrant and invigorating start for her time as Artistic Director. There’s a lion costume made of rubber gloves that is BRILLIANT, and it uses a diverse cast and switches set character gender without making it a big deal. I don’t really get on with Shakespeare, and so seeing someone at the helm willing to let the text fly a bit free from all the reverence poured over it is really, really great.
There’s a lot to be said for The Globe, too. I’ve lived in London for two and a half years and been twice, for this and for Titus Andronicus. Both times, I’ve seen what we as a nation consistently talk about as the greatest playwright of all effing time for a fiver. The audience is diverse in all visible aspects – and though much of this is down to the tourist trade, I wonder how many venues could get a roomful of tourists to audibly gasp or cheer. There are people here who, I would guess, are not regular theatre goers. The Globe should be applauded for managing to keep tickets at £5, rather than hiking them up to meet demand or whatever bullshit reason West End producers cite for charging hundreds of pounds for tickets.
But, there’s a dark undertone to this production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream that I want to talk about.*
You know when you watch Disney’s Beauty & The Beast, and there’s that bit where the Beast *hurls* Belle’s dad into the back of a moving cart? Then there’s the bits where he’s full on roaring in her face? That’s still a good film and you can still see the skill and warmth in its creation, but there’s this sense of discomfort in knowing that this is one of the narratives forming the ways in which young people view their place in the world. Men are violent, women are timid, and even if a man is violent you should still marry him at the end.
Part of my issue with Shakespeare is that it is all 400 odd years old, and I can’t really see the relevance in presenting most of it now. I saw As You Like It in January at the National, and everyone gets married at the end. In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, everyone gets married at the end. In a Shakespearean comedy, women can be as intelligent, witty and erudite as possible but they still exist to be married off. I want to see theatre that says something about the world we live in now, and I just really want to feel like we’ve moved on in the last 400 fucking years. I want the young girls in this audience to feel like they can be more than someone’s wife.
There were young girls in the audience on the day I saw A Midsummer Night’s Dream, because The Globe is a popular destination for school trips. There were at least three groups from different schools at the performance I went to. Ages 11 – 15, I’d wager.
There’s the weddings. These are tricky, because the text is altered enough in Rice’s production that they could’ve just like, started going steady or something. They didn’t need to get married. But it’s in the text, so I guess is at least a bit forgiveable (barf), and my desire to see something actually relevant to 2016 is maybe just a taste thing.
But there’s more than that. The lovers – Hermia, Lysander, Helenus and Demetrius – all get criss crossed in a big love cube. There’s a lovely thing here, in that this is a rare depiction of bisexuality in theatre. But there’s a less lovely thing, in that there are physical fights between the lovers. Lysander hits his former-love Hermia, Hermia kicks him in the nads, Lysander fights back, Demetrius and Helenus tussle too. For this to work – for you to feel the scorn of the rejected lovers – the fights need to seem a bit real, it needs to seem like those hits hurt and the vitriol in those words is meant. It’s a bit funny, but it’s also part of that damaging dialogue we offer to young people that the important thing is marriage, not self-care or safety. Hermia and Lysander still marry at the end, and no one ever brings up the fact that Lysander has been verbally and physically aggressive to Hermia. The lovers wear modern dress, too, so this can’t be done away with as ‘the way things were’, because it is being presented like this is now. You can’t say they’re all off their tits on fairy induced highs either, because if someone in a relationship hits someone while they’re wankered that is still not ok. This production breaks the rules enough that Hermia could tell Lysander to do one. But she marries him, and as she marries him in their little hipster wedding I despair for the children in the audience.
But this is not the worst. We’ve been marrying our characters off to abusive cunts for comedy for centuries, and at least the fighting does find a little humour. But I find rape really, really difficult to watch played for laughs, especially when it’s a throwaway gag. For a chunk of the show, Titania lies unconscious in the centre of the stage. At one point, Oberon straddles her and gently thrusts into her a few times. He climbs off, and then shakes his leg a little, presumably to get the cum to drip off. Now maybe fairies have some mad mind powers that allowed Titania to communicate her consent to Oberon while she was asleep, but to a muggle audience he rapes her. THEN HE MARRIES HER AT THE END, his raping of her but a distant memory to characterise him as a scumbag and get a cheap laugh for a cum joke. Titania – otherwise played by Meow Meow as a sexually assertive, confident woman – marries her rapist and no one bats an eyelid or brings it up ever. There is a school group that just got told rape is no big deal.
Maybe I’m being over dramatic and over sensitive, and I’m sorry if that seems the case. But I’m just really sick of tradition being used as an excuse to trot out miserable, misogynistic messages to impressionable audiences. This is still a good show and you can still see the skill and warmth in its creation, but it is uncomfortable at times. If this was a show only for adults – if there was an age guideline, for instance, and not just a cheeky warning for ‘naughtiness of a sexual nature’ – I’d maybe forgive it. I’d forgive it for being set in a magical land of hipsters and fairies wearing nipple tassles, a world away from our own. I’d say that Emma Rice’s production breaks enough rules set out for Shakespeare that the wave of excitement it lets you ride is enough to wash over the bad bits. But this is as much a rant about responsible marketing as it is about artistic decisions. If your show has a rape in it that is then never addressed, you should turn the school group away. I can only hope that somewhere there is a school resource pack being circulated that encourages teaches to talk about this and to use this show as a springboard for hard conversations. If there is, then I can’t find it up for download, but I hope it’s out there. I hope that The Globe have something that tells the school groups that walk through their doors to interrogate what they see, that stops it being part of the worldwide conversation that treats sexual and physical abuse like it’s no big deal. Because you can present rape and abuse on stage, as long as you interrogate it, as long as it means more than delivering a quick giggle.
*I do have a tendency to overthink gender and the portrayal of how we treat women. But when we came out of the show my friend brought up this issue before I did and so I feel justified in this rant.