“I have had a most rare vision.” This line, spoken by Bottom at the beginning of Act 4 of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, goes a long way in describing the experience of viewing the Bridge Theatre’s production of the famous play. Rare because I’ve never before seen Puck crowd-surf; a vision because the whole theatre seemed to transform into a forest in which fairies dangled from the trees, imbuing the space with the feeling of real magic occurring.
Nicholas Hytner’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream landed at the Bridge Theatre over the summer, and, like many other Londoners looking for an escape from the doom and gloom of the news, and the chance to be metres away from Gwendoline Christie, I bought a standing pit ticket. I came away from the performance completely elated and jumped at the chance to write a review of the National Theatre Live broadcast in October.
Most people will know the plot of Shakespeare’s play: two sets of young lovers escape to the forest, high jinks ensue thanks to meddling spirits and a domestic between the fairy king and queen, there’s a brief donkey-fairy love plot, and then all is conveniently mended. Hytner’s rescript, however, played around with the plot, making it Titania, rather than Oberon, who tells Puck (traditionally Oberon’s right-hand man) to sprinkle potions into eyes. This means it’s Oberon who falls in love with the donkey-eared Bottom, resulting in possibly the most joyful striptease ever performed, all to the soundtrack of ‘Love on Top’ by Beyoncé. There are other notable subversions: Gwendoline Christie plays both Hippolyta, Theseus’ caged spoil of war, and Titania, the liberated, mischievous fairy queen, and Oliver Chris is both Theseus and Oberon, shedding a suit for an embroidered emerald jacket and flower crown. These changes breathed fresh air into a production most of us have seen or studied – Hytner himself remarked that he wanted the production to feel like “a liberation, a release” – and the audiences, both at the Bridge in August and the Picturehouse in October, fully revelled in each twist and turn.
Of course, a processionary audience like the one I was lucky enough to be part of for the live production has no choice but to get involved. We were moved around the space, at one point parading behind the bed Oberon and Bottom were dancing on, holding hands with the other actors and shaking our hips to Beyoncé. I felt the same excitement from the Picturehouse audience, who gasped and whooped as Hytner’s vision came alive before them. It takes a really special production to elicit a similar reaction from an audience quite literally immersed in the play and one sat 200 miles away in a cinema, but Hytner’s aim to “plunge the audience right into it” was certainly achieved thanks to excellent performances by the cast and dancers and the breath-taking set.
Gwendoline Christie’s performance was particularly striking – many will be used to seeing her play the battle-hardened Brienne of Tarth in Game of Thrones, but in this production, she swung from silk hammocks, gleefully meddled and danced with the audience. Her transition from the subjugated Hippolyta, encased in a glass box on the stage, to Titania, resplendent in a floor-sweeping sea-green dress and ready to enact revenge on her husband, was remarkable. It was brilliant to see a woman onstage being so mischievous and powerful in a way that the original script doesn’t allow for, and Christie carried this gift with infectious glee.
David Moorst was also stunning as Puck. The traditionally impish character was elevated to a rodent-like spirit, scratching at himself, casually dismissing the audience as “Londoners” in his trademark Northern drawl, and rolling around in silks suspended from the ceiling. Moorst learned how to ‘tumble’ in the three-month rehearsal period without any previous experience – shocking when you watch how he throws himself through the air, often just seconds away from dropping. Moorst’s Puck was perhaps the most modernised character in terms of vernacular, but this didn’t always work. It felt jarring hearing a Shakespearean character saying “LOL”, for example, but generally, this added a sense of fun and modernism to the piece. Hammed Animashaun was a triumphant Bottom, marching around the stage in a mustard boiler-suit, injecting low camp into a production already heaving with it. As the play’s chief humourist, Animashaun ran with the idea of operating in a playground – his death scene as Pyramus in the Mechanicals’ notorious play was the most relentlessly funny imagining of it I’ve ever encountered. The actors playing the young lovers clearly had fun embodying their characters’ immaturity – Lysander acts like any other young softboy, frequently pulling a guitar out, and just like a girl in a club bathroom might after an unsuccessful night, Helena struts around bemoaning her apparent inability to pull. Such performances reminded the audience just how fresh and relevant Shakespeare can be.
The production design greatly enhanced the performance’s magic. A playground of mattresses and silks, with fairies suspended mid-air and huge moon-balls bouncing around, teamed with the rich, dazzling colours of the costumes worn by the dream kingdom characters, completely engaged the audience, fulfilling Hytner’s wish that the production would be “ridiculous and glorious”. The transition from characters at the beginning of the play singing hymns in conservative suits and head-coverings, to the naissance of the forest with spirits in spandex and glitter, was beautiful and thrilling, and this energy carried through right until the show’s final dance.
It is impossible to accurately describe the joy this production fostered in its audiences, both live and remote. I came away both times compelled by the power of theatre, particularly when it is as immersive and fresh as this production was … “a most rare vision” indeed.
– Caitlin Barr