A Midsummer Night's Dream (Shakespeare's Globe)
Emma Rice's first production at the Globe is a music-infused love letter to Shakespeare's stories
A Midsummer Night's Dream is safe territory for director Emma Rice. Rice's anarchic storytelling, the loud, colourful, music-infused work that she has made for the last 20 years with Cornish-based company Kneehigh, entirely lends itself to Shakespeare's mad and magical fairy comedy. And you won't see me complaining about Rice sticking to what she does best. Her first show as artistic director at Shakespeare's Globe is a total hoot, a ridiculously fun, riotous piece of work that focuses in on the timeless, hilarious stories which thread through the Bard's play.
Emblazoned on the back of the Globe's stage in red neon-lit writing are the words "Rock the ground". A quote from the play, it sums up what Rice's intentions are with this first piece: she's here to shake things up, mess with our heads, get us stamping our feet and clapping our hands so that the rumbles from the Globe can be felt all the way to Tower Bridge.
And I'd wager that they will: this is an accessible Dream that will appeal to anyone who likes a bit of magic and a good party. The four lovers - Hermia, Lysander, Demetrius and Helena (here gender swapped to Helenus) - aren't in Athens, they're on Bankside. They are Hoxton hipsters yearning to get back to London from their forest wilderness. Moritz Junge's costumes are kooky and contemporary, until it comes to the fairies, who rock a dirty Elizabethan chic. Hair bedraggled, skirts torn and ruffs stained, they look as though they've been partying in the woods for a very long time.
Titania, played magnificently by cabaret artist Meow Meow, is a sensual, legs frequently akimbo fairy queen who staggers and totters on impossibly high heels across the stage. Her Oberon - an equally entertaining Zubin Varla - guzzles Strongbow and has a threatening, malicious streak as he takes advantage of his queen and the unwitting young lovers with the help of Katy Owen's Puck and a dodgy drug. Wearing glittery trainers which flash lights, and armed with a water pistol, Owen is a wiry manic bundle of energy who charges about the place, causing havoc in the name of her king.
There's standout work from the four lovers, who begin as arch-geeks and too-cool-for-school kids. Hermia (played with much beguiling comedy by Anjana Vasan) has a gay best friend in the form of Helenus (an earnest and occasionally slightly too camp Ankur Bahl). It's a believable twist of their relationship, especially when the two twerk to Beyonce's "Single Ladies". The gender swap certainly doesn't jar, and works best within Hermia and Helenus's relationship, but it doesn't unearth much new about Helenus, or Demetrius for that matter, whose reasons for so vehemently denying his love still feel a little strange.
The mechanicals are a bunch of Globe ushers, mostly women apart from Ewan Wardrop's Bottom, who is a bolshy idiot in a group of general weirdos. Their Pyramus and Thisbe at the end is a work of complete joy and brings out a great DIY magic - the wall is cereal boxes, the lion's mane a clutch of yellow marigolds. There's even a wonderfully brazen challenge to Rice's doubters in there too: "Why is everyone so obsessed with text!" shouts Nandi Bhebhe's Starveling as she tries to visually demonstrate the man in the moon.
Stu Barker's songs thread through Rice's production, with the band and sitar player sat at the back under orange marigold garlands. Everyone sings, everyone dances. There's been cutting of the text, and insertions too "Help me, she's mental!" shouts Bottom in his ass's head as he is carted away into Titania's love nest. But the changes are playful and the poetry is still very much in force in Oberon and Titania's sad, beautiful speeches, and in the lovers' funny, emotional, angry wrangling. Here though, it's all about the stories, and Rice is at her very best when she re-tells them in her brilliant, crazy, hearty way.
A Midsummer Night's Dream runs at Shakespeare's Globe until 11 September.