Gwendoline Christie (Titania), Oliver Chris (Oberon), David Moorst (Puck) and Hammed Animashaun (Bottom) lead an ensemble cast of actors, acrobats, singers and dancers in The Bridge Theatre’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, currently streaming on YouTube as part of the National Theatre's online programme.
The production's advertising calls it “Shakespeare’s most famous romantic comedy”. Even in a sentence in which every word is necessary (no one could call it Shakespeare's most famous play, or his most famous romance) it is a bit of an over-statement, not just because of other, possibly more famous ones such as Much Ado About Nothing, but also due to the play itself: the romance is the least interesting thing about it. Even the “comedy” aspect isn't its main feature as, like happens with most Shakespeare plays, the biggest audience laughs come from the added anachronistic swearing, “yeah yeah yeah” and rehearsed adlibs.
A Midsummer Night's Dream is one of Shakespeare's most original plays, and not just because it is one of the few times, he didn't rip his plot entirely from a history book or Italian tales. What's more, this production knows it. The joy of the play comes from fairies, magic and extremity, which this production brings its own stamp to with vibrant colours, acrobatic suspension, several pop songs and exits via disappearance.
The heightened emotions are assisted by the format: a play in the round with audiences on each side and the stage in several sections to be moved in and out when needed.
Behind the glitz there is also substance though. With a few seemingly simple touches the director brings his own narrative to the dream: Gwendoline Christie is introduced quiet in a glass case, takes Oberon's role for Titania to teach him a lesson, Oliver Chris's Theseus gets a full douchebag make-over and Hippolyta gets a moment of being Titania in order to add a character arch (For Theseus) to the happy ending. You're not quite sure what it exactly means but it's a dream and it shouldn't all make sense.
As has to be the case for this show to work, the stars are not the lovers but the fairies (and Bottom) and the casting here is very good. With regards to the lovers Isis Hainsworth and Tessa Bonham Jones also shine, though Kit Young's Lysander, partially through directorial choices, comes across less as a star-crossed lover than a young man electing to go camping one night with his girlfriend. Of the slightly more thankless roles, Oliver Chris as Theseus and Oberon (here in the Titania role) has the greatest panache. The switching of the Oberon/Titania plotline could have felt weird and forced but it does not, even in the couple of instances when some members of the audience's laughter seems to suggest they are taking it the wrong way.
The only other criticism with the show has to do with its ending. This is in part the fault of Shakespeare's script (“Heresy!”) which adds an extra fifteen minutes of comedy after the natural resolution of all the plotlines, which works only if it is hilarious. While it often is here, it is also unnecessarily exacerbated by extra material which, being all about actors, staging and bad improv, veers on the self-indulgent. Again, though it is partly Shakespeare's fault, it's a bit like Horatio restaging The Mouse Trap at the end of Hamlet, while the audiences watches him commenting on that for over twenty minutes.
These are however minor gripes. As I said, the romance is never the best part and the ending, while overlong, still has many great moments thanks to Hammed Animashaun. This is a triumphant reinvention of Shakespeare's classic play, inventive and energetic which deserves to be seen.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream is available until the 2nd July via https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Punzss5sHto&feature=youtu.be
Reviewer: Oliver Giggins
Reviewed: 25th June 2020
North West End UK Rating: ★★★★★