[Image description: Black and white shot of an actor in masc clothing with a donkey’s head, and a femme actor in ethereal wispy white clothes sitting together in a forest]
Last week the Arcola Theatre in Dalston, London put on a wonderful queer take on Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, directed by Nick Connaughton. This Shakesqueer’d version features both original text and added monologues which capture a wide array of modern queer experiences.
As I took my front-row seat, I was informed by a middle-aged fairy wearing nipple clamps that if I wanted to partake in drugs all I needed was to slip some money in Puck’s pocket and he’d make sure I was amply supplied. The lights dimmed; a spotlight on Puck. He opens with “Ladies and gentlemen, genders outside and in between…” (Can everyone please use this?)
The setting is split between a closing gay bar in Athens and the traditional magical forest. The main four characters (Hermia, Lysander, Helena, and Demetrius) are genderfucked and queer: Demetrius is masc with some internalized homophobia, Helena is a lovesick gay boy, Hermia is a lesbian, and Lysander is a woman who loves women. All four wore variations on white dresses (tunics?). The King and Queen of the fairies are both fabulous drag performers. The actors within the play were enjoyably camp, excepting one very sexy dance scene. Theseus and Hippolyta were an adorable and hilarious old couple trying to mediate the disputes.
This version of Shakespeare touched on key queer themes: coming out; deviating from gender norms; HIV poz stigma; substance ab/use in the queer scene; moving to the big city, thirsty for a sense of community; and of course, worshipping queer idols like Cher. The foursome’s intertwined love-square is easily adapted from traditional Shakespeare to modern queer social groups, which tend to be intimate and entangled.
Hermia (Krishna Istha) gave a desperate monologue about coming out to her homophobic father (who interrupted harshly) made me cry, and Bottom (Camilla Harding)’s monologue broke the fourth wall to call out white, masc-as-default cisnormativity in queer spaces and proudly claim their non-binary identity (“I’m using labels to defy labels, get it?”). The traditional Shakespearean dialogue was punctuated by modern interjections like “oh, for fuck’s sake” for both clarity and comedic effect.
It closed with an amusing musical number: “So Long, Farewell” from The Sound Of Music, culminating in the entire cast stripping. What this has to do with AMSND exactly is lost on me, but it was cute nonetheless.
My only disappointment was that there was not enough time between scenes to properly emote: the lighting would change too quickly, and I felt the actors deserved an enthusiastic response. Shakespeare shouldn’t be taken too seriously, and audiences should feel uninhibited in making noise (clapping, booing heckling, and wolf-whistling alike) rather than quiet and grave.
There is great power in seeing yourself represented on stage, in adjusting stories to accommodate marginalized experiences (I’m a big fan of queer headcanons), and Shakespeare’s plays, populist by nature, are absolutely ripe for reimagining. I’m very much looking forward to more from the Arcola Queer Collective.