The Pop-up Globe is a remarkable achievement in out-of-the box theatre making, taking a similar impulse to London’s “Shakespeare’s Globe” re-creation of the historic Globe Theatre, but erected out of scaffolding and portable elements as a travelling temporary venue. After a previous season in Melbourne, this New Zealand-based company now comes to Sydney for the first time, boasting attendance by some 450,000 patrons already in the scant two years since it was first erected in Auckland. Although on approach the building in its current temporary residence at the Entertainment Quarter site of the old Showground is unfortunately a bit visually crowded out by surrounding structures, once you get up close it is an impressive three-level structure, and upon entering, it is sheer magic.
Although predominantly made from modern materials such as the metal scaffold, the architectural dimensions are reputed to actually be more accurate to the historical (second) Globe Theatre used by Shakespeare and his company than those of the aforementioned permanent recreation in Southwark, London, that opened in 1997 as a tourist attraction and successful working theatre. Based on updated research by Russell Emerson and Associate Professor Tim Fitzpatrick of Sydney University, the Pop-up Globe is smaller than its London counterpart, about 12 feet less in diameter, with more sharply polygonal walls and a noticeably smaller central “yard”.
This creates a more intimate relationship between audience and actors, particularly for the “groundlings”, those patrons who pay for the cheapest tickets to stand in the yard around the deeper thrust stage, yet which are widely regarded as the best “seats” in the house. It is a highly recommended option for those with the mobility and environmental fortitude to stand up in an open-air theatre for a couple of hours. It has by far the greatest novelty as a theatergoing experience, and should be no tall order for the young or fit, or those accustomed to attending live music festivals.
Much like the trade-off between the highly authentic-looking wooden stage and tiring house/backdrop with the unadorned modernity of the temporary building materials used to erect the surrounding “Wooden O” structure, the production techniques for the actual plays mounted at the Pop-up Globe are a mixture of authentic and pragmatic. These are not attempts to create a “theme park” of historically-accurate shows that seek to recreate Shakespeare’s plays exactly how scholars think they may have been performed, but rather are modern productions that take liberties with the text and a creative approach as would any good contemporary theatre company, such as Bell Shakespeare. In doing so they are seeking to make their performances alive and vital for today’s audiences.
Where this hybridisation comes in is that these performances are nevertheless geared towards utilising the historical characteristics of the theatre space itself as authentically as possible, such as an absence of any electronic music, amplification or lighting effects beyond simulating constant daylight conditions for patrons attending evening sessions. Most of this manifests in how the actors interact with the crowd, as the thrust stage and “posh seats” positioned at the rear of (essentially on) the stage itself create virtually a theatre-in-the-round experience. An added dimension is that of the extreme proximity of the groundlings looking up at the actors and potentially having their space invaded during some of the entrances or exits. And, as one sign ominously warns, the chances of getting splattered with theatrical blood “or other fluids” is a very real possibility for those eagerly clustering near the stage.
Directed by the Pop-up Globe’s artistic director Dr. Miles Gregory, his production of the perennial favourite comedy A Midsummer Night’s Dream opens the Sydney season with a strong Kiwi flavour, a playfully anachronistic collision of costume designs by Chantelle Gerrard and Shona Tawhiao. The Athenian nobles such as the four mismatched young lovers are perhaps closest to what we would imagine to be traditional Jacobean theatre costuming, while Peter Quince and the other “rude mechanicals” are framed as modern tradies in hi-vis vests and hardhats, with their stated occupations in the dialogue even updated to titles such as “scaffolder” or, in the case of the cluelessly arrogant Bottom, “the boss’ son”.
The third group is dramatically different in turn, with the fairy characters of Oberon, Titania and Puck wearing costumes evoking traditional Māori culture. Even more strikingly, these character predominantly speak their dialogue translated into te reo Māori, especially when addressing each other. This inclusion of more than a smattering of bilingualism is an intriguing move for this production, especially in bringing it to Australia where one would probably be safe to assume that the vast majority of the audience will not speak the language. For those who already know the play well it is still perfectly easy to follow what is happening in these scenes, but it could be potentially confusing for children or those unfamiliar with the story. One suspects however that even in such a case the endearing performances would carry just about anyone along.
The production as a whole is utterly delightful, with Gregory eliciting a very high-energy show from his extremely game cast. Injecting some modernised asides to the crowd and considerable slapstick that beautifully utilises the full dimensions, levels and choreographcial potential of this now-unconventional theatre space, this is a raucous show to say the least. Indeed, at times the action grows positively anarchic as the love-drugged Demetrius and Lysander chase Helena, Hermia, and just as often each other up and down the stage, lifting and tumbling into all manner of hilarious configurations and scenarios. The denizens of the fairy kingdom accentuate their choreography with elements of traditional Polynesian dance and gestural flourishes, as well as simply “using the Force” to throw each other around with mimed magical powers, and employ the same abilities to puppeteer the hapless human lovers in their increasingly ridiculous conflicts.
The Mechanicals do the most interaction and improvisation with the audience, with Bottom in particular trying to crack onto attractive groundlings and aggressively exhort the crowd to cheer on his vastly overestimated capabilities as a thespian… all completely in-character, of course. When Puck finally gives the vainglorious manual labourer his famous ass’ head, the Donkey-Bottom of this production is perhaps the most hilariously grotesque and huge iteration of the character you are ever likely to see. When the would-be theatrical troupe appear before Theseus’ court at the conclusion, they are festooned in a hilarious assortment of makeshift costumes, cobbled together from tradesmen’s gear and building-site materials, to deliver a memorably incompetent rendition of Pyramus and Thisbe.
With a strong ensemble cast that is all-male in another example of the production’s semi-“traditional” approach, particular plaudits go to the hilarious Max Loban and Thomas Wingfield as Hermia and Helena respectively, as well as Patrick Carroll and Will Alexander who whip themselves in to ever more comical hysterics as Demetrius and Lysander. These four actors under Gregory’s direction do a good job of avoiding one of the frequent pitfalls of other productions of this play which deliver bland and insufficiently differentiated performative characterisations of these lovers, such that the male and female roles can seem almost interchangeable. The mechanicals are also very funny, especially Chris Huntly-Turner and Patrick Griffin (aka Sarah Griffin) commanding the stage with prodigious comic timing as Bottom and Flute. Jade Daniels and Jason Te Kare engage with uproarious antics in their primary roles as Puck and Oberon, while Asalemo Tofete cuts an imposing and dryly humorous figure as Titania.
For those wishing to see an interesting intercultural take on Shakespeare’s classic, or simply just a robust and unique new production, this is the show for you, and you could not possibly ask for a more engrossing venue to enjoy a collective theatrical experience than the Pop-up Globe.
Pop-up Globe presents
A Midsummer Night’s Dream
by William Shakespeare
Director Dr. Miles Gregory
Venue: Pop-up Globe | Entertainment Quarter Moore Park NSW
Dates: from 30 August 2018 (see website for details)
Tickets: from $29.51