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FringeReview UK 2023

Low Down

Enough questions with the child, cruelty and othering, to raise questions that don’t dissolve in a dream. Yet there’s light enough to resolve this too. A warmth between the lovers somehow drags us out from the mask of branches Terry revealingly doffs at the end. Absorbing and a must-see.

Musicians: Composer James Maloney, Composer/Musical Director/Saxophone/Clarinet Zac Gvi, Percussion Zands Duggan, Saxophone/Clarinet Sophie Creaner, Trumpet/Hang Drum Adrian Woodward, Tuba Hannah Mbuya

Director Ellie While, Set Design Wills (Paul Williams), Associate Director Indiana Lown-Collins, Movement Director Annie-Lunnette Deakin-Foster

Costume Design takis, Fight & Intimacy RC-Annie Ltd, MagicConsultant John Bulleid,

Costume Supervisor Sabia Smith, Text Consultant Simon Trinder,  Globe Associate – Movement Glynn MacDonald, Head of Voice Tess Dignan,

Seasonal Voice Coach Katherine Heath, Head of Stage Bryan Paterson, Head of Wardrobe Emma Lucy-Hughes, Head of Company Management Marion Marrs, Head of Props Emma Hughes, Stage Manager Sophie Dalton, DSM Martha Mamo,  ASM Georgia Rose, Casting Becky Paris. Producer Tamara Moore.

Till August 12th


The speed of dark in this year’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream which opens the Globe season directed by Elle While, centres on Puck (Michelle Terry), sullenly refusing to more than amble a girdle in 40 minutes. It’s a disturbing, detailed Dream, though the dark proves parent and original with that “little changeling boy” Oberon covets, disturbingly prominent in a cry.

Like night clouds too, there’s a patchy feel to this dark: a production that draws up violence through stage-smoke, yet elsewhere lets it scud away. It’s easily the finest Dream here since the Globe’s 2013 production though, and even more thoughtful than that. Vocally too, it’s keener than some productions. Though speed and dispatch inevitably blur a few lines this is a lucid Dream.

Terry stares out at the audience sulkily channelling in costume designer takis’ fantastical weeds (a green woman, headdress of branches, blue-green skin, a hedge upwards) that elsewhere dresses everyone in Elizabethan sumptuousness (they’re frankly gorgeous), and where Wills’ design is a simple echo: blue-green roots wrapping the pillars, a large net dropped as a flowery bed, so Titania dreams for much of the middle summer’s action. His most elaborate set is reserved for the remarkably sophisticated props in the Mechanicals’ play, where full use of the balcony is deployed too.

Music’s in fact the magic. Composers James Maloney and Zac Gvi provide short, punchy interjections, almost like a TV thriller, braying through saxophone, clarinet, tuba: discordant, tyrannic court and ungoverned forest equally invoked. But every time magic intervenes there’s a percussion ting, beautifully timed as actors freeze. 

The opening exchange between Oberon/Theseus (Jack Laskey) and Hippolyta (Anne Odeke) dispenses with recent tradition underscoring capture and forced marriage: Hippolyta trussed and crated in an Amazon box; the Globe 2019/21 Dreams and Hytner’s masterly Bridge production (surely taking a hint here at least with Hippolyta’s glass cage) later in 2019. So Odeke – amusingly truculent with a gloriously outré hoop skirt – really is wedded in another key. There’s none of the hostility that reinvigorated the relationship, and Odeke herself emerges translated as Cobweb, not Titania.

Laskey’s Oberon though is not notably transmogrified. Having kept his Theseus’ easy, patriarchal regality when dealing with lovers, particularly Hernia, it’s not notably different when with Puck. There’s none of the abusive tyranny some Oberons visit on their world. Laskey keeps this if at all for Titania (Mariam Oldham), though a long stand-off between them continues and never resolves. The changeling boy cries at the moment of reconciliation. Abandonment is what Herma and Helena fear, but are saved from. No such gentle fate awaits this child. Its wails close – and chill – the hesitation Oldham feels in accepting Oberon’s bed and company.

Oldham herself is both commanding and sexy, slinky rather than regal, gesturally summer in her state too, tender and sensuous as she winds her lover in her arms. Magical percussion winds back an errant Bottom when she makes to flee, but there’s an inherent gentleness here so you feel the loss of the child is real for both of them. Her Robin Starveling is almost unrecognizable, though her Moonshine lines – beautifully dressed as the Mechanicals are in their play – are cut.

The most disturbances otherwise befall Hermia (Francesca Mills) in particular. Mills was last here in 2018, in the superb Two Noble Kinsman, Barry Rutter directing Northern Broadsides where she frankly stole the show as the Jailer’s Daughter. Prominent since then Mills revels in the more tragic potential of Hermia’s role, the outright abuse she receives at the hands of Lysander (Sam Crerar).

When words like “dwarf… minimus… acorn” fly from them there’s an audible gasp. Helena (Isobel Thom) is hardly kinder with her “low and little” and one believes this Hermia can be little but fierce as a sudden outsider in the quartet, with the others’ easy lope as Mills deploys stunning acrobatic skills in her “vixen” assaults. When at the end of this truly shocking scene Mills stands “amazed and know not what to say” we’re with her.

Mills’ wattage being what it is, Thom’s a fine match. Returning after their outstanding stage debut here in the title role of I, Joan last September, Thom certainly towers as Helena and gives a performance of sheer abandonment and self-loathing. Sheer abjection informs their “use me as your spaniel” – which isn’t answered with a corresponding savagery by Demetrius (Vinnie Heaven) who like Crerar tends to keep abuse verbal – except for his rival.  Vocally clear, garbed in virid, jealous green Heaven is perhaps less dark than Crerar’s Hermia-gaslighting Lysander, more easily believable as reformed than some Demetriuses.

Bottom (Mariah Gale) – or Bottome as she prefers – is physically kin to Oldham’s Titania, except when translated. Delighting in her attempts to steal all the other actors’ parts, she roars and flutes, to apostrophising alliterative piffle (itself parody of early Elizabethan drama), and with a fantastically jerky shuffle, becomes the ass she brays. This Bottome like Hyacinth Bucket, queens it over the other actors, vocally sparring with Titania, quite happy to snog after admitting “reason and love keep little company together nowadays” and really does seem as wise as Titania claims. Though absurd in acting, Gale keeps the wonder of Bottome’s Dream to prove her imagination somehow more powerful than other mortals.

Egeus, and briefly Philostrate (Sarah Finigan) in tall puritan hat is a delight, Finigan’s vocally lustrous and grainy, a fine singer (there’s much of that, where at the end Laskey leads a beautifully-voiced company chorus) but also knowing exactly how to place herself: as another Fairy or as Snug snatching back the limelight from Bottome in gentle roaring, purring, and winning the audience cuteness stakes.

As an unnamed Fairy (Molly Logan) has much to do, being the first to spot Puck, and entrusted with many lines. As Flute, stroking a phantom beard Logan revels particularly in her death scene. Pathos  is often the way Flute finds genuine emotion and overtops the heroic Bottom, and it’s still the classic way. Not here. Flute gets the loudest claps, but she and Gale play this like Britten’s opera of the dream, and Logan’s outrageously funny in her non-stop agony aria, singing, ribboned sword-thrusting and scurrying her death, a tour-de-farce of opera buffa dimensions.

As Snout Tanika Yearwood might peek out from the Wall like Kenny in South Park but Yearwood invests Snout and the wondrously-tricked out Mustardseed with real presence. The Quince of Rebecca Root is confident too, goes head-to-head with Gale, not loudly, but firmly, and surpasses previously Quinces in guying the prologue with a panicky patter on delivery. Her Moth is one of the most fantastically tricked of all the fairies, whilst another Fairy (Lizzie Schenk) is unnamed – you feel a name should be found.

Terry though always centres the play. From being slowed to a sulk, this Puck haunts and hurts, more savage, more angry than most, delighting in leading lovers “thorough briar” and up and down. A beautiful bit of misdirection in imitating the voice of Lysander and Demetrius is managed by simple doubling, where both Puck and relevant lover synchronise speech. It’s spooky too, like an electronic echo. You double-take for a moment.

Though I’d like to have seen more confrontation – as there has been of late – between Theseus and Hippolyta, since their relationship never rises beyond Odeke’s truculence, and more danger between Oberon and Puck, as well as Hermia and Demetrius, there’s enough questions with the child, with the cruelty and othering of Hermia, and Terry’s twisted grammar of Puck, to raise questions that don’t dissolve in a dream. Yet there’s light enough to resolve this too. A warmth between the lovers, and others, somehow drag us out from the mask of branches Terry revealingly doffs at the end. Absorbing and a must-see.