“Anything special,” my brother asked over the phone, “you want to do while over here?”
2016 is the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death. Which occasioned events celebrating his life and work on a global scale, in cities from Cairo to Delhi. With the biggest bashes taking place, on his birthday April 23, in London and at his birthplace Stratford upon Avon. Even London’s subway system, the Tube, joined the party, releasing a version of its famous map with stations named after the plays and characters. Glancing at it online, I saw that Marylebone station on the Bakerloo Line was Ophelia. Aha! Was this a hidden game for a few, a happy few? The name Marylebone derived from the old St Mary’s church beside the winding Tyburn River, and Ophelia of course drowned, in a brook where a willow grew aslant, showing hoar leaves in the glassy stream. Then again, the station at Notting Hill was Much Ado About Nothing. A dig at the posh area? Signs to the initiated?
“A play,” I said to my brother, “at the Globe Theatre would be great.”
He sighed, and said, “Getting tickets this late is going to be blue murder. I’ll see what I can do.”
London! A city with a thousand things unfurling every day: book launches, concerts, talks, musicals, plays, restaurant openings, exhibitions, art shows, sidewalk yodeling, pavement finger painting – you name it, they had it going – and yet the audience for it was inexhaustible. In London you couldn’t just turn up, coat collar up against the wind, buy a ticket and walk in. The reason was its humongous tourist machine which, at rip-off prices, fed, bedded and entertained an endless horde of visitors. All those bodies, wall to wall.
“Any particular play?”
“No, any will do.”
A day before I landed in London, he got the tickets. Not primo, somewhere up there in the rafters. A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
June 5. Across London Bridge, in low afternoon light, to the Globe, an exact reproduction of the original Elizabethan playhouse. The newly constructed The Globe in 1598 was London’s first proper theatre. It was here that Shakespeare, a part owner, finally made his money, a sign of the popularity of theatres in Elizabethan times. It enabled him to get his much-coveted coat of arms and return home to Stratford as a wealthy man. There he was more businessman than playwright, buying malt and hoarding it illegally to sell at higher prices. Shakespeare obviously liked having some dough.
Well, why not?
I looked at the surrounding area, which back then had bear baiting rings and seedy watermen joints. To think that Shakespeare lodged here, near Clink prison not too far from The Globe, and walked these streets felt unreal. But then, what’s past is prologue. Around me the crowd, tourists like me, strained and pushed at the stands for beer and hotdogs. We bought sodas, and rented cushions (cost 1 pound, blankets and raincoats were 2 and 3 respectively) from a pair dressed up in Elizabethan togs. All part of the machine – Shakespeare, the Globe, every last bit of Englishness that could be scraped up was fed unremittingly into its maw. It used to be just The Globe; now, lest we miss the point, it is Shakespeare’s Globe.
Oh well, we all like dough, don’t we?
A bell rang. We went in, and up narrow wooden staircases to the uppermost third storey. The stage, with its roof, was like a cinema screen at one end, with the audience arrayed in front and on the sides in horse-shoe-shaped tiers. Our seats – hard wooden benches actually for which cushions were necessary – were all the way at one end of the horse-shoe, the view an angled slice of the action. But there was one advantage to the seat – from on top one had a schematic view of the whole thing, the classic Elizabethan theatre house. To look down was to time trip.
And then Theseus, Duke of Athens, and his betrothed, the Queen of the Amazons appeared on the stage. “Now, fair Hippolyta, our nuptial hour/Draws on apace,” he said to her.
For almost the next three hours the play was more a show, conducted at a rollicking, almost burlesque, tempo. A high-energy thing of fit young actors. It was a modernized version, where Helena became Helenus in a gender switch, with Ankur Bahl in the role. Central characters were played by non-white actors – Theseus/Oberon played by Zubin Varla, Hermia by Anjana Vasan, Nandi Bhebe as Starveling, Demetrius by Ncuti Gatwa – all of them performing flawlessly. For me, though, the standout actors were Meow Meow (yes, that’s her name and she is a cabaret performer) as Titania, shedding clothes, in perfect control of a role that demanded she lose control to a tidal wave of desire, and Ewan Wardrop as Bottom, with fine comic delivery. To see Shakespeare performed in London in a setting such as The Globe, set to some lovely music, was to be reminded how the characters and roles and words and gestures were in the very blood of these British actors, radiating an ease and fluency impossible to achieve outside of the UK, no matter how skillful the talent may be.
But at the end, I couldn’t escape the feeling that perhaps there had been overmuch of surface spritz, of a sound-and-light show. That it had been designed cannily by Emma Rice (the Globe’s newly appointed artistic director) for an audience on a fun trip to London, who would feel they got their money’s worth of song and spangles, of sauce and slink. As far as that went, looking at the buzzing, happy crowd around me, Emma had it right on the nose.
But A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a meditation, expressive and lyrical, on the themes of appearance and reality, dream and waking, fixity and fog. As other lovers quarrel and resolve them in mimicry of the central quarrel and resolution between Oberon and Titania, the King and Queen of Fairies, the play explores love and marriage, the former’s urgencies stated, in deliberate inversion, by Titania to Bottom the weaver with an ass’s head:
I am a spirit of no common rate;
The summer still doth tend upon my state;
And I do love thee.
That was the play the production missed.