6/26/2020 A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM National Theatre at Home / Bridge Theatre
In the shadow of London’s Tower Bridge lies the Bridge Theatre. It opened in 2017 and was developed by Nick Starr and Nicholas Hytner (Miss Saigon, One Man Two Guv’ners) as a home for the London Theatre Company, founded by Starr and Hytner after their successful tenure at the National Theatre. All of which leads to the “no surprise” decision of National Theatre at Home to YouTube-share the Bridge’s 2019 production of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream (available only through July 2).
To be blunt, this is one of the funniest, cleverest, most creatively original productions of Midsummer I’ve ever seen (and I’ve seen dozens – even been part of three).
Staged in the round on a fluidly changing series of platforms surrounded by a closely-packed audience who spend a lot of time on their feet interacting with the cast and being blocked
(well “herded”) by an army of efficient ASM’s. Modern(ish) dress (and music) give the whole thing a feeling of a poolside midsummer party, complete with bouncing king-sized moon-visaged beach balls. And it exuded an overall sense of joy hat made my laptop screen positively glow.
The production started off on exactly the right note, as Hippolyta is rolled on in a glass cage, a prisoner of war being exhibited for the Athenian masses as they sing a chorus of praise to their supreme leader. Hippolyta is NOT a happy bride-to-be, and why haven’t other directors made this simple choice? Seeing Hermia and Helena dressed as modern votary novices and Demetrius and Lysander looking like Wall Street Turks goes a long way to setting a specific mood and feel for the whole production that follows.
Shakespeare’s Dream is probably his most accessible and familiar story. I’ve seen Midsummers set in a forest of beds-on-stilts, cast with “tag-team” Pucks, with mechanicals dressed in thatch, 2009’s GSF backstage-centric extravaganza, even one in which Puck wore Buddy Holly glasses and a superman shirt. It should be difficult to surprise me with this one.
And yet, here we are, watching a production with a Puck made up as a pierced and tatted punk rocker, a plus-size female Snug who intimidates all the other mechanicals, a “Madame Quince” who comes across as an exasperated school-marm, a Lysander who won’t go anywhere without his guitar, separate “posses” of fairies attending either Oberon or Titania, a plethora of well-rigged and oft-used acrobatic silk(ish) trapezes, and beds that appear and disappear as if by magic (including one rigged to help Puck instantly disappear in the middle of a full-view arena set.
And this whole story, his whole production is nothing if not magical!
The most magical moment of all occurs when Titania and Oberon subtly (and almost unnoticeably) switch roles. Yes, Titania is ordering Puck hither and yon and Oberon is seducing Bottom (in one of the most laugh-out sequences in the production, accompanied by chest-baring, disco music, and, eventually, a shared bubble bath). This gender-play comes full circle during the lovers’ battle, when Puck and Titania mischievously “anoint” the proper eyes to add both boy-on-boy and girl-on-girl kissing.
An aspect of the “audience as part of the show” aspect that bears mentioning is the constant “breaking the fourth wall” (is there an analogous arena-staging term?) that everyone in the cast wallows in, with modern asides and idioms, and not a few “Get out of my ways” as characters make their way through the throng from one platform to another. The Mechanicals even get to borrow an audience member’s cell phone to “check the calendar” (“Please unlock your calendar”) which sets off an hysterical series of reactions to what they (supposedly) find on that phone. And, in a bravura display of stagecraft, when dawn arrives, it is with a huge cloth pulled over the set (and floor-level standees), beautifully illumined by lights of rose and red and gold), flying through reminding me of no less than the dawn sequence in Fantasia.
It goes without saying that the final Pyramus and Thisbe scene is so far over the top that it redefines :
“top.” Director Hytner allows the gentlemen to occasional take part and allows the ladies to be the “sisters three” Thisbe calls upon. Moonlight carries an irritatingly intense flashlight as his “lanthern” and even holds a red gel in front of it for the “bathed in blood” sequence. And Bottom is able to come up with every single possible movie cliché grisly death possible, ending with a subdued “Splat.”
All this razzle-dazzle and cleverosity would be moot with a lesser cast. Fortunately, this troupe are all brilliant at making the dialogue ride the fine edge between Shakespearean lyricism and modern rhythms. They know the text, the subtext and the mod-tex, those recognizable flourishes that set the story right here right now. And they rapturously create memorable characters with stories we want to experience.
Gwendolyn Christie is Titania and Hippolyta, embracing our memory of Brienne of Tarth by towering over Theseus and Oberon. She brings a playful sparkle to both roles and makes it clear to us (to everyone on stage in fact) that, though she may be a reluctant bride, she will be a willing (albeit full-warrior mode) spouse.
As Oberon and Theseus, Oliver Chris (John Knightley in the recent Emma) cuts a regally commanding (dare I say “manly”) figure, yet he allows himself moments of tenderness and empathy, particularly with his scenes with Bottom and with his “posse” of fairies.
As Bottom, Hammed Animashaun (“Pizza Guy” in the “USS Callister” episode of Black Mirror) is a comic force of nature, his doughy face so expressive we giggle as he falls under Oberon’s seductive appeal (yes, his “transformation” involves only a hat with Donkey ears). He has an emotional range that would be the envy of Bottom the actor, if Bottom the actor were less of a blustering hambone. He is moving at times, pompous at times, and, when the right times come, capable of milking his audience for all the laughs he can muster,
In an “Ethnically Conscious” piece of casting, the lovers are played by a pair of white women and a pair of brown men, a seemingly purposeful blending of all the strains of this Athenian milieu. Isis Hainsworth as Hermia and Tessa Bonham Jones as Helena are a delightful contrast, Ms. Hainsworth dark and mysterious, Ms. Jones blonde and “poor pitiful me” peevish. Kit Young is suitably sneery and callow as Lysander, and Paul Adeyefa is suitably overbearing and shallow as Demetrius. The four fight and play so well together that they, as has been happening more often in recent productions, become a comic driver on par with the mechanicals.
As Puck (and an unrecognizable Philostrate), David Moorst is a marvelous amalgam of mischief, cheer, and downright petulance (as he chafes under Titania’s apparently endless commands). Lanky and agile and punk-rock spiky, he is different from any Puck I’ve seen (come to think of it, have I ever seen a Puck who was like any other Puck? I think not), and brilliantly effective for all that.
I could go on and on about the marvelous ensemble work from the Mechanicals, the acrobatic elegance of the fairies, the fluidly changeable transitions and visuals, the yeomanlike camera work, and so on and so on and on. But I think you get the message that I really REALLY loved this production,
This show is a testament to the brilliance and creativity of Nicholas Hytner, to the range of production values available in the new Bridge Theatre, to the depth of talent in the London acting pool, and to the eternal adaptability of Shakespeare’s works. It is a valentine to those of us who revel in the theatre, even to these small digitally frozen versions of it, and a reminder of what this pandemic has cost us in lost live experiences.
That it is also a dream of a way to pass a midsummer night, should go without saying, but There! I’ve said it anyway.
-- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com @bk_rudy #NationalheatreAtHome #BridgeTheatre #Midsummer)