This Is Cabaret rating ★★★★☆
There’s not many cabaret singers that, after casually being lowered from the Globe’s rafters, have the chutzpah to tell the audience “there’s usually massive applause at this part”. Then again, there are very few like Meow Meow, the kind of global phenomenon the UN really should have a committee for.
Appearing in Emma Rice’s controversial take on A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the Australian diva plays the dual role of Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons, and Titania, Queen of the Fairies. She’s not the only queen on stage here: instead of a Helena, we have a Helenus of Hoxton played by Ankur Bahl as a camp hipster.
Hoxton, you say? Isn’t this play meant to be set in Athens? Well, yes, but, in her debut production as the Globe’s artistic director, Rice has tweaked this classic production every which way but loose. Not only do we have East Londoners tramping around Greece but there are Asian influences throughout. Rice and her dramaturg Tanika Gupta have taken Titania’s line about “spiced Indian air” to heart: from the sitar-strumming player placed centre and above the stage throughout proceedings to the group dance routines and the Hindu-style weddings at the end, this is a marvellous masala of Bollywood and Bard.
As well as the genderbending of Helen, there are other nods to cabaret and its particular quirks. Anyone standing in the front row should expect to possibly be interfered with, whether it is being groped, sprayed with water or invited up on stage. Like over-sized cabaret tables, round platforms in the standing area allow the actors to wander out amongst the hoi polloi. The fairies are portrayed as politically correct burlesque dancers, breasts covered but with twirling tassels attached to the costumes and some impressive moves in the bump-and-grind department. Finally, the play’s post-wedding coda is akin to a BGT final with a rollerskating eunuch losing out to a hilariously bad local drama troupe.
Meow Meow is the biggest nod of all and she and Rice once again make magic happen as they did with Umbrellas Of Cherbourg (of which Liza Minnelli was a big fan). Although the diva has pretenders to her throne in London, Edinburgh and beyond, the chance to see the real deal in the flesh is not one should pass up. If Shakespeare isn’t your thing or you miss out on a ticket here, Meow Meow has two other shows in the UK this year – a solo production in Brighton this month and a collaboration in November at the Royal Festival Hall with the London Philarmonic Orchestra.
Rice has done much to spruce up this old standard. She’s sexed it up mightily and there are more tasty twists here than a plate of fusilli. Purists will be horrified, everyone else should be delighted. If there is one fault with this production, it is that there are too many theatrical techniques and cultural influences in close quarter. It is an electric experience but sometimes the non-traditional elements diminish the comedy at the heart of Dream.
Also, this play has always been a fantastical tale thanks to the fairies and other supernatural beings but we should be able to connect with the more “normal” characters like our star-crossed lovers. Seriously, what kind of Hoxton hipster would wander into a forest of their own free will, miles away from the nearest Vietnamese restaurant and 4G phone reception?
Image: Steve Tanner of First Fairy (Nandi Bhebhe) singing Titania (Meow Meow) to sleep