Shakespeare's 'A Midsummer Night's Dream' is radically interpreted in the first production from the Arcola Queer Collective, Arcola’s newest community performance company. Patrick Cash writes about the challenges of putting a modern queer slant the Bard's iconic comedy...
First you have to queer the Shakespeare. Forget ‘homoerotic subtexts’, let’s make this play gay, baby. And not by giving one of the characters a chihuahua in a Dolce & Gabbana handbag: we wanted to make A Midsummer Night’s Dream
, that famous play about love, a truthful depiction of gay love in 2015.
Hence why our play begins with a young gay boy chasing after an ex-shag who threw him away. Back in Willy’s day true love was all the rage, but the grass is always greener when you’ve got dick pics to share on Snapchat.
Luckily, for the plot, not all the characters are looking for NSA. A lesbian couple want to marry, but their path is blocked by a homophobic mother and a misunderstanding state. Cue an escape for all four young lovers into queer cabaret club Le Forêt, celebrating its last hurrah before Westminster Council closes it down, where latex-clad fairies dance dragged in the night, love juice drips upon lips, and the real dream begins…
We could have left it like this, and presented a fairly interesting ‘gaying’ of a 400-year-old text. I’d imagine the really diehard Shakespearean purists would react in the way that people do when Facebook changes its layout. But the Arcola Queer Collective wanted to do better than outraged confusion and create a production that really reflected queer contemporary life. That’s why we’ve integrated new, modern scenes into the Shakespeare chassis, like a freepour of rum into a classic cocktail.
And what writer would be of such gauche arrogance to inject his own work into that of the greatest playwright in the world? Yes, well, ahem.
In my defence, what really attracted me to this project was the return to exciting, community-created theatre that it promised. London might be a shimmering black hole swallowing your money, but it’s also one of the greatest cities in the world for performers and creative people right now. When we put out our call for performers we got old hands and fresh faces; bar boys, burlesque dancers, transsexual poets, DJs; a rich and vibrant cross-section of the LGBT+ scene who wanted to make their voice heard.
And we began by speaking. In workshops we discussed ‘what does it mean to you to be queer?’ One of the themes of the play is parental pressure and for many of us, myself included, that meant going back to a time almost forgotten. Do you remember what it was like, acting every day at school? Thinking that if you were found out you would lose your family. A lot of us had felt that way, and how terrible to know there are still teenagers right now in that very place.
But there was a lot of laughter too, a lot of shared experience in experimentation and establishing our identities. And we spoke a lot of love: not over-dwelling on the loves that had broken us, but looking at the loves that had made us and shaped us, and celebrating the loves that we had.
Here are the seeds from which those new scenes blossomed; I may have written them, but they are crafted from a community’s words. Our aim in part is to use art as a form of activism, to open eyes and encourage empathy. Here’s why we thought we’d be audacious enough to put our own scenes into A Midsummer Night’s Dream
, because whether 400 years ago or right now, whether gay or straight, you know what? Those ideas of love are still pretty damn similar.
‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ is playing at The Arcola Theatre, 24 Ashwin Street, Dalston, E8 3DL from Tuesday 20th - Saturday 24th January. Shows 8pm, Saturday matinee 3.30pm, Tickets £9 (£7 concs).
The Gala performance on Friday 23rd, raising funds for the Collective’s next production, includes drinks, canapés, Q&A and live music, and is £30.
For tickets and more information, click here.
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