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A Midsummer Night's Dream
By William Shakespeare
Bridge Theatre, London SE1 until August 31 www.bridgetheatre.co.uk
Note: This production will be broadcast to over 700 cinemas worldwide on October 17, 2019. See www.ntlive.com
Reviewed by Jarlath O'Connell
After the success of his immersive Julius Caesar at The Bridge last year, Nicholas Hytner has struck gold again with this 'Dream. Rarely have I witnessed a young audience so wrapped up in what is a baffling text, at least for the uninitiated. It's a play that has probably turned off as many as it's turned on, with too many having been dragged through it at school by surly English masters. Here, Hytner brings his signature clarity to its convoluted parallel plotting and he does it all with a mischievous sense of fun.
Designer Bunny Christie has turned the stalls into a central pit in which the audience stands around constantly moving platforms. The faeries are all circus trained performers who swing from silks suspended above the stage and they pull off amazing feats of singing and line delivery whilst dangling upside down in contorted positions. Kudos in particular must go to the impish David Moorst who steals every scene he is in as a decidedly punkish Puck from 'up North'. Not a faerie you'd mess with.
Despite being called immersive there's not actually much encouragement for the audience to move around until late on when there is circle dancing, hand holding, the unveiling of a huge flag and a chance to dance with wild abandon with assorted elves. It all has a curious effect though of allowing one to connect more personally with the text than if one was trapped in a seat. The proximity to the cast and to the amazing stage crew (who carefully prep each of the moving platforms and beds) gives it a kinetic energy which the actors then feed off. This is a circus tent.
It's all unashamedly hip as well and ticks so many today's boxes: contemporary references, liberal use of some carefully judged pop (Dizzee Rascal's 'Bonkers'), borrowing audience members phones, quick selfies, gender fluid casting (now de rigueur) and most significantly the reassignment of not just lines but whole plot points to other characters. It also has as its trump card a genuine Game of Thrones legend in the truly Amazonian Gwendoline Christie as Titania. Probably the tallest female star in our firmament at 6 feet, 3 inches, she's clad, regally, in a cascading emerald down. You can't take your eyes off her. For once the similarly lanky Oliver Chris, as Oberon, gets a leading lady who can look him in the eye. This King and Queen of the Faeries may be Nordic Gods but there is also a subtle gentleness and warmth to both.
The biggest change is that it is not Titania falling (whilst under a spell) for the half-man, half-ass, Bottom, but rather her husband Oberon. There is also some same sex action among Hermia and Helena and their amours Lysander and Demetrius, which frankly serves to enliven their usual romantic squabbling. Of the four, Isis Hainsworth stands out as a refreshingly single minded Hermia.
Such radical reassignment of characters lines comes with gains and losses of both meaning and plausibility and the Oberon-Bottom romance becomes at times too much of a laddish jape rather than the tender infatuation it should be. This audience can't be bothered with textual rigour though, they're too busy having fun.
Hammed Animashaun looks like a bruiser in his boiler suit but he plays Bottom with a really winning charm and is one to watch. Too often the tedious, play-within-a-play drags on but he and the other five 'Rude Mechanicals' in this version are wonderfully witty while being distinctly urban. They're more Big Narstie than hey nonny-nonny.
Textual purists will have to be removed on a stretcher but everyone else gets to dance around whilst wearing purple floral bands in their hair. You take your choice.