A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a great comedy that not only challenges but provokes directors and designer to use their imagination and creativity to do it some justice. It has high comedy, low comedy, burlesque, and some of the finest poetry in the English language. The challenge is accepted and there are hilarious, mind-opening productions and some awful directorial ego trips that almost manage to do the impossible: make the play unenjoyable.
Nicholas Hytner, the former artistic director of the National Theatre, tackled the play in 2019 for a production at London’s Bridge Theatre that he co-founded in 2017.
First, Hytner takes care of the basics. The actors deliver their line with a perfect pitch, poetic resonance and musicality. The Mechanicals who put on the lamentable comedy and cruel death of Pyramus and Thisby are down to earth as trades people and out of this world hilarious as performers of the Interlude.
There are some gender changes in the characters of no real moment, but one change is more interesting. Oberon is given Titania’s lines and it is he who falls in love with the Ass to hilarious effect. There are some minor issues with the lines, but it is quite fascinating to see the King of the Fairies being gulled.
The main floor of the theatre is turned into a playing area. Many in the audience remain standing and there are several moving stages. It is not easy to comprehend the full fluidity of the production on the television screen, but you get a pretty good idea.
There are a number of beds in which we see the lovers, Oberon and others. The Fairies are airborne and seem to have the talents of circus performers and ballet dancers. Puck of course is up in the air as often as on the ground. He has to push his way through the audience to find the lovers to some merriment. The whole production is a dazzling display of imaginative staging, exuberance and superb theatricality.
The lovers, Isis Hainsworth as Hermia, Tessa Bonham Jones as Helena, Paul Adeyefa as Demetrius and Kit Young as Lysander, are outstanding for the delicious delivery of their lines, their physical agility and the energy they create and laughter that they evoke.
The Mechanicals are in a league of their own. Hammed Animashaun deserves the highest praise as Bottom. He is a riot of energy, natural humour and infectious joy in what he is doing. Felicity Montagu is terrific as Quince, the “director” of the Mechanicals. Hight praise to Jermaine Freeman as Flute, Francis Lovehall as Starveling, Ami Metcalf as Snout and Jamie-Rose Monk as Snug.
The statuesque Gwendoline Christie makes an impressive Titania and Hippolyta. From her glass enclosure she witnesses Hermia being forced to choose between a man she does not love and possible death. She is an Amazon who was abducted by Theseus and one may surmise that she may not be a completely willing bride.
Oliver Chris as Theseus is a dictator willing to enforce the father’s right over his daughter as he imposes his will on Hippolyta. As Oberon he is made a fool by falling in love with an Ass and gains some insight into love? A fine-tuned performance by Chris.
Puck is always a delight to see and hear. David Moorst gives an exemplary performance in the role. He must do aerial tricks, deal with the audience and display verbal and physical agility together with his shenanigans. A delight to watch.
We go back to Hytner and designer Bunny Christie who have created an astonishing and astounding production. It may not be to everyone’s taste. Sexual attraction and sexual preferences vary and Hytner touches on them. You may not like finding beds in the forest outside Athens. So be it. But this is an imaginative, exuberant, original, fully realized major production of a great play.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream by William Shakespeare opened on June 11, 2019 at the Bridge Theatre, 3 Potters Field Park, London and a recording was shown on YouTube a number of times including June 30, 2020 by the National Theatre.