By Carol Rocamora
Have I used up my quota of rave reviews for the summer? I hope not! The Bridge Theatre’s 2019 Shakespeare’s joyous A Midsummer Night’s Dream, now streaming on NT Live, is the dream production of the decade in so many respects. Featuring a dazzling new theatre space, a wildly imaginative interpretation, and an ideally diverse cast, it offers a thrilling vision of joy and harmony – one that lifts our spirits from the depths of our current crisis.
“The course of true love never did run smooth” describes the plot, following four pairs of lovers (mortals and otherwise) as they quarrel, mix and match in old Athens and a nearby wood over a 24 hour period before the King’s wedding. You know the plot – of course you do, you’ve seen Shakespeare’s beloved comedy dozens of times. But never mind that you’re watching it again, and on-line. Nicholas Hytner’s multi-dimensional production leaps off your computer screen with its thrilling 21st century reimagining.
Let’s begin with the Bridge Theatre space itself. Co-founded in 2017 by Hytner, it’s a dream site for this immersive Dream, featuring a series of platforms that rise up magically from under the theatre floor to serve as various stages, with audience members sitting and standing around them. The story’s fluidity from day to night, from civilization to wilderness, from court to fairy kingdom, from a stern society to a free-loving forest, is ideally reflected in the movement of the platforms and the actors upon them.
Next, there’s Hytner’s brilliant staging. Actors play out the opening Athens scenes on the platforms, moving through the audience horizontally. As the action transforms into the forest night scenes, the production goes vertical. A stunning retinue of airborne acrobatic fairies fly from slings hanging from the theatre ceiling, or swing from the posts of the canopy beds placed on various platforms, where the young lovers change partners under the spell of the fairies’ magical powers. The beds fly, the fairies fly, and it’s a wondrous sight (set to Grant Olding’s original musical compositions and a playlist of contemporary pop offerings).
Theatre historians may reference Peter Brook’s legendary circus-like 1970 production of Dream, but Hytner’s multi-dimensional use of the entire theatre and the immersive audience experience elevates the concept to a new level.
With this great infusion of movement and energy, Hytner introduces an audacious “feminist twist” to the play’s interpretation. In the opening Athens scenes, King Theseus (Oliver Chris) dominates over his fiancée Hippolyta (Gwendoline Christie). But once the story moves into the forest at night, and they assume the roles of the quarreling Fairy King Oberon and Queen Titania, Hytner pulls a fast one. Instead of Oberon having the upper hand in their dispute, Hytner gives his lines to Titania! She becomes the one who directs Puck, her fairy aide, to sprinkle magic dust in the young lovers’ eyes – as well as in her own husband Oberon’s. Hence, the production’s comedic payoff – Oberon (instead of Titania) falls in love with Bottom, one of the “rude mechanicals” who is rehearsing for the wedding-day play. Tip-off: Bottom has been transformed by Puck and his fairy retinue into an ass! The coupling of Oberon and Bottom at the climax of Act One (to the music of Beyoncé’s “Love On Top”), bouncing on their shared bed, surrounded by airborne acrobats, is one of the most hilarious moments I’ve ever seen onstage. It’s a vision of sheer joy and liberation – with the audience on its feet all around, dancing along with the actors.
As for the superb ensemble, David Moorst’s multi-talented Puck is an absolute marvel, equally dazzling when reciting Shakespeare or performing daredevil acrobatic stunts in the air. As the double-cast Kings and Queens, Oliver Chris and Gwendoline Christie are appropriately imperious, and Hammed Animashaun’s Bottom is priceless. Puck’s company of fairies are gymnastic wonders, and the comedic “rude mechanicals’ (led by Felicity Montagu as “Mistress Quince,” another gender switch) are a delight. The lovely young lovers – Tessa Bonham Jones as Helena, Isis Hainsworth as Hermia, Paul Adeyefa as Demetrius, and Kit Young as Lysandr – are wonderfully remixed and rematched. As for the production team, Hytner’s inspired direction is augmented by Bunny Christie’s ingenious production design and Arlene Phillips’s cleverly choreographed movement.
Yes, Hytner’s Dream rejoices in “pan-sexuality” – and more. It’s a celebration of life, youth, a new order, and a new way of doing theatre – all-inclusive and all-encompassing. You’ll be on your feet in front of your computer, dancing too.
Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, directed by Nicholas Hytner at the Bridge Theatre, now streaming on NT Live through July 1. www.nationaltheatre.org.uk