On the pink-lit stage of Barnfield Theatre, a teenage boy stands in a dress made of Poundland carrier bags alongside Bottom, Francis Flute and Robin Starveling reimagined as zero-hours workers.
This is just one way in which this Exeter College student production has twisted, shifted and moulded this well-known story for a contemporary audience. While Athens and the forest remain the same, inside are found not only the motley zero-hours crew, but also gender-flipped interpretations of Lysandra, Theseus and Puck.
Following last week’s Exeter Pride, themes of gender and sexuality are fresh in the air. This staging seems to create a space in which concepts are free to flow in all directions. Without focusing on a plot line typically associated with explorations of sexuality - the “coming out” narrative - the play simply allows relationships that are not typically represented to flourish. Without drawing much attention to the two lesbian couples on stage, they are embedded into the story rather than separated from the familiar tale.
I discovered after the play had finished that the company had employed gender-blind casting, allowing the personality of the character to determine the choice of actor, rather than their gender. This gives the production a much more feminist feel than a straight telling, as girls take on a whole new range of roles.
From a calm and commanding Theseus, to a wild Lysandra and even wilder Puck, this rendering of A Midsummer Night’s Dream is as much a testimony to the power of women as it is to love, in all its forms.
Furthermore, the company explores the character of the Moon, or Artemis, as she guides the young female characters. As Helena struggles to understand her own agency in the world as it all collapses around her, Artemis stands by her in otherworldly grace. The same is true when Hermia and Lysandra struggle to define the boundaries of their relationship: both too are comforted by the Artemis figure.
Besides subverting the unspoken laws of gender, this performance also tests the bounds of movement. The dance in this performance is incredible. It isn’t just contained in tightly controlled sequences, but fills the stage from one scene to the next. Oberon delivers his lines between acrobatic flourishes as his sidekick Puck leaps and bounds in playful glee. The very stage seems fluid: it is a joy to watch.
And, if all this seems heavy - weighed down by concepts of gender and sexuality - remember that A Midsummer Night’s Dream is, after all, a comedy. In which a teenage boy stands on the pink-lit stage of Barnfield Theatre in a dress made of Poundland carrier bags.