Folger Theatre, Washington DC
Well, this was my first taste of transatlantic theatre – a short* trip to Washington and New York coinciding with the Folger’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. I’ve written before about the Folger library – well, it has attached a small theatre, based on the Globe (or possibly the Rose) but indoors and with MUCH more comfortable seating. And it was here that I saw A Midsummer Night’s Dream – not my favourite Shakespeare play, but one I know reasonably well.
This was a slightly gender-bent version, with both Puck and Bottom played by women (as well as most of the Rude Mechanicals – about which more later) and both actors were trailed heavily in the promotional material as being big on the Washington scene**. Of course, not knowing anything about the Washington scene I came to it with an entirely open mind. All I was looking for was a different experience to London, and on that basis the production succeeded magnificently.
The setting was vaguely modern, mostly minimalist blue wood but with a beautiful cut out yellow moon tumbling flowers and some seriously giant floor cushions. The costumes were in keeping (albeit with some odd choices – notably the military jackets for the men), with the fairies relying mostly on cheesecloth, and Puck’s costume showing off a frankly astonishing set of abs. Special mentions also to Hermia’s boots, and Bottom’s wonderful ass costume, complete with Alexander McQueen-style cloven shoes. Somewhere along the way Lysander also got turned into a bit of a hipster – luckily sans beard, but unfortunately very much with ukulele…
The music was one part I took issue with a little – not just the very odd song at the end (definitely not a Shakespeare original and I know I said I liked a jig at the end but APPARENTLY NOT ALWAYS) but throughout the piece. It also felt a little over-produced for what is a very small theatre – the very electronic cues did not gel well with the feel of the production, and the sleight of hand used to convey movement in the little lights used, Tinkerbell-esque, to portray some of the fairies is very hard to pull off against an audience that close. On the other hand, I did like the sense of movement – not just around the stage but out into the audience in true Globe fashion.
I couldn’t make up my mind as to whether I liked Oberon or not (the actors playing Oberon and Titania also doubled up as Theseus and Hippolyta, which is pretty traditional). His Oberon was better than his Theseus – looser of limb, more princely (which is pretty ironical since they are both kings). He had occasional wonderful flashes of exuberant strangeness, but alas rather more moments when he came across as “one of those ageing hippies who prowls around festivals perving on twenty-year-olds”, as my theatre-going companion put it. The actress playing Titania (Caroline Stefanie Clay), on the other hand, felt vastly under-used.
The Rude Mechanicals were the only part of the play which tried to tie itself to a particular time or setting, presented as they were as the drama club of a private girls’ school, complete with the two stereotypical teachers – a fat bloke in a bow-tie, and an overkeen middle-aged woman (Bottom). It was a great pity that the best of them, Megan Graves playing Snug, was played as someone with selective mutism who could only mouth her lines, although much of the rest of the audience seemed to find it very funny indeed. Bottom had great comic timing, but couldn’t quite manage to pull off the bad acting required for the play-within-a-play – Pyramus’s death scene ended up being surprisingly moving. We were also treated to the spectacle of Wall singing her lines, an unnecessary touch, but the petulant Moonshine was done to perfection. It could have felt odd to have such a steady grounding compared to the rather more shifting base for the rest of play, but actually it worked well.
I can’t say that, as a whole, it worked as well for me as it seemed to for the rest of the audience. Whether my palate has become jaded, or something is lost in transatlantic translation I couldn’t say – and I am still delighted to have pushed out the frontiers of the Shakespeare I’ve seen.
* And, as it turns out, bloody freezing – don’t visit the east coast in February if you don’t like it icy…
** I don’t get the impression it’s a massive scene – but I’m trying to avoid a lengthy digression about how Washington is the political but not cultural capital of the US.