Wednesday 24th July 2019 at the Bridge Theatre, London.
If ever there was a perfect production to introduce a person to the wonders of Shakespeare, it’s this one. It’s rare for a creative team to really bring fresh new dimensions to Shakespeare’s work but with this production there’s budget and vision, and with it the creative team do and do and do. But what is it that they do exactly? They reinvigorate, they transform and the play around. They declare open season on popular, traditional characterisations of Shakespeare’s famous characters and fly the flag for modern revisions in the name of bringing the thrill and the accessibility to the forefront of Shakespeare’s work.
Here, the focus shifts from the four lover-centric view of the play to the wealth of theatrical possibilities lying in the magical realm of the forest. It’s an approach which transforms the work in new ways, bringing in contemporary elements to insert new gags and to elevate the magic of the place Shakespeare conjured for our enjoyment. Our messy love triangle with a fourth wheel attached is present and accounted for, but it is finally made secondary to what makes this play so wonderful: the tangle of Bottom the ridiculous weaver and the mischief of magical characters caught up in their own drama but with a keen eye on opportunities for mortal-meddling…
Director Nicholas Hytner takes a Shakespearean classic and makes a modern beauty of it. The production is based on the 1625 First Folio and with approximately 500 lines ‘reassigned’. This achieves two very specific things: re-instating significant sections most productions cut and gloriously tapping into the current fascination with transforming known-stories by switching power dynamics and gender roles. The inclusion of various unscripted sequences (usually to hip, modern music) are inserted with the best possible results – the bathtub and the bed conga being two particularly brilliant examples, alongside the finale which leaves the audience partying even after the cast have departed.
It is Titania in this production who tricks Oberon which not only shifts the dynamic of the play in terms of gendered authority but also makes way for refreshingly alternative takes on the love affairs taking place. Oberon falls for Bottom and things get frisky in the best, most comical ways (thanks in part to a little groovy choreography from Arlene Phillips to the tune of a Beyoncé hit). The magical flower is used to pave the way for various other fleeting passions and snogs which raise laughs as much as eyebrows – a sure sign of success…
So, the lovers, while taking a backseat for once, are very well cast and much more entertaining here than has been the case in other productions. Isis Hainsworth’s Hermia is the comic and dramatic equal to Kit Young’s Lysander just as Tessa Bonham Jones’ Helena is to Paul Adeyefa’s Demetrius. They capture the agelessness of the lovers’ plight and make much of both the comedy and tragedy of the perils at hand.
Gwendoline Christie’s Hippolyta is pained and powerless behind her glass casement just as her take on Titania is free and powerful in the realm of the forest. Taking Oberon’s lines and act of trickery gives Titania an interesting new dimension and Christie’s decision to remain playful as well as imperious works very nicely to bridge the gap. Titania’s faithful servant Puck (originally Oberon’s minion of course) also gets more airtime in this production than others. David Moorst’s Puck is manic and mischievous and…stroppy. It’s a comically petulant take on the character which includes huffs and snapped instructions to the audience paired with an infectious sense of relish as he proves ‘what fools these mortals be’.
Oliver Chris is also an excellent Theseus-Oberon combination, impressing more so as Oberon in his hilariously fearless scenes with Bottom… Which brings us to Hammed Animashaun…all hail Hammed Animashaun for his Bottom shall be crowned legendary hereafter! Never before has Bottom been charming and lovable. It’s another departure from popular characterisations and it pays off more than any other found here – the risible, grating and oftentimes repellent village fool is not to be found. What Animashaun offers is far better – endearingly coy when complimented, comically alarmed when threatened, sweetly over-eager rather than arrogantly divisive…and a real mover to boot! Animashaun is the heart, soul and hilarity of this production combined – Bottom has never been better cast.
But it’s not just Bottom who brings the best comedy fodder to the production – The mechanicals on the whole are fantastic, featuring further departures from popular renditions to refresh and delight. Felicity Montagu’s Quince is a gentle matriarch keeping her enthusiastic company of overgrown toddlers in check; Jermaine Freeman’s Flute is a disappointed darling; Ami Metcalf’s Snout is a huffy teenage type; Francis Lovehall’s Starveling invites heartfelt ahhhhs with his tragic underdog act and best of all, Jamie-Rose Monk’s Snug is a brute – a far cry from the usual visions of a dense creature scared of his own shadow.
And finally, it came as no surprise to discover that the inspired staging is the work of production designer Bunny Christie, who seems to bring a kind of magical flair to every production lucky enough to get her. Staging Shakespeare in the round is popular and allows for vital visual variety but this production goes a step further. Here the space is ever evolving, with the groundlings herded about into various sections to allow platforms to rise and fall from cavities beneath their feet. A stylised glass box dramatises the entrance of Hippolyta beautifully, offering up a multitude of interpretations to engage and challenge from the word go.
The forest is full of lights (Bruno Poet) and colour and sounds, with set pieces facilitating movement sorcery and surprising entrances and exits. It’s a veritable feast of theatrical spectacle made complete by aerial work from Titania’s lithe and enthralling fairies (Peaseblossom: Chipo Kureya, Cobweb: Jay Webb, Moth: Charlotte Atkinson, Mustardseed: Lennin Nelson-McClure and Bedbug: Rachel Tolzman).
This is a fantastic production which re-awakens the thrill of Shakespeare’s magical forest. It offers spectacle, comedy, style and modernity as an appreciative parade of the bard’s best work. My advice is to take anyone. Take the traditionalists and the experts and the novices – gift them the experience of Shakespeare in the hands of those with vision and the capabilities to deliver theatrical magic.
This production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream plays at the Bridge Theatre until August 31st 2019 and you can find tickets here.