Other theatres may be hipper, slicker, starrier and physically warmer. But Shakespeare’s Globe is the beating heart of London theatre: boisterous, historic, audience-inclusive, affordable, it’s a permanent tribute to history’s greatest playwright, but also a place that embodies the way in which Shakespeare’s legacy has deepened and progressed, with its full-throated commitment to diversity, inclusiveness and non-traditional casting. The fact that both the government and Sadiq Khan have used it as the location of their big setpiece recent cultural policy launches says everything.
London hasn’t been London without it, and it felt particularly cruel that despite being an outdoor venue, it simply couldn’t afford to open with social distancing last year.
How amazing to have it back, then, with a typically anarchic and colourful take on ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ that feels both tantalisingly close to the pre-pandemic theatre experience, but also a reminder as to how fragile all this still is. The ‘out damned spot’ hand sanitiser on the way in is cute, but in a sold-out house, the sheer volume of empty seats required to maintain distancing is sobering. The legendary £5 groundling tickets have been retained – but as a handful of seats; it won’t really be the same until we have a yard heaving with a standing audience.
This is actually a recast, slightly tweaked version of Sean Holmes’s 2019 production of Shakespeare’s magical comedy about romantic shenanigans in faerie-filled woods. Then, it received mixed reviews: there had been a lot of productions of the ‘Dream’ that summer, and Holmes’s everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach felt a little scattergun.
But in 2021, its cheery maximalism is a blessed relief from the endless diet of minimalism, misery and compromise we’ve been subject to over the last year. Jean Chan‘s costumes are an absolute wonder, the fairies decked out as boggle-eyed, psychedelic aliens who transform Sophie Russell’s thespy Bottom into a retina-searing donkey pinata. Yeah, it’s hard to work out what the ‘concept’ is in a production that one minute seems to be styled like a New Orleans funeral on acid, the next like a wilfully crappy British wedding reception. But that’s fine: in 2021, the concept is ‘WE’RE BACK IN A THEATRE!! YAY!!!!’. I’m not being soft here: its giddy, hyperactive sense of experimentation simply suits this moment better than it did a ‘Dream’-saturated 2019.
There are still lots of questions about how this season will end: hopefully the Globe will be able to sell more seats after June 21. But social distancing may not finish on schedule. Theatres might even have to shut again. Who knows. But right now theatre is back, Shakespeare is back, slightly extra conceptualising is back… and it feels just great.