Last year the Bridge removed all its stalls seats for a gloriously exciting promenade production of Julius Caesar. This year, they’ve only gone and done it again – for Nicholas Hytner’s new production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, an old perennial favourite that can withstand the tests of time and whatever bright inventive ideas an innovative director can throw at it. Over the years, Dream has learned to stand on its own two feet; I’ve never yet seen a production that I didn’t like, because there’s always so much fun to be squeezed out from squabbling lovers, ruthless fairies and a starstruck weaver. It lends itself to updating too; I was just a bit too young to have seen the famous Peter Brook production, but that concept of aerial fairies has never quite gone away.
It’s always a pleasure to write about a production that gives so much joy, happiness and sheer delight. Mr Hytner’s version is a dream of a Dream. Inventive, cheeky, bang up-to-date; playing with the storyline but still respectful of the original and its characters. Before the show started, I noted that the programme gave the factual, but enigmatic statement: “around 300 lines have been reassigned”. I hadn’t read any reviews in advance, so didn’t know what to expect; and if you’re in the same position, gentle reader, and don’t want a big surprise to be spoiled, I will completely understand if you now X me out at the corner of the page and read no more. Because the surprise is a thing of beauty.
“I jest to Oberon”, Puck normally explains, in his introductory speech, to the unnamed fairy at the beginning of Act Two. Instead, “I serve Titania”, says this Puck, with an accent straight up from the Black Country, looking like a cross between the late lamented Rik from The Young Ones and Keith from The Prodigy. By serving Titania rather than Oberon, that means she’s going to play a trick on him, rather than the other way round. So it’s Oberon’s eyes who receive the Love-in-Idleness treatment, and who therefore becomes besotted with Bottom when he awakes. And how does that make Bottom feel? You’ll just have to see this production for yourself to find out.
Bunny Christie comes up trumps as usual with a superb set, full of trickery and surprises; a Perspex box for Hippolyta’s first appearance (she has been captured by Theseus at war, after all); an Athenian forest liberally sprinkled with brass bedsteads for the lovers’ sleep-out adventures; and a range of fabric trapezes for Puck and the fairies’ general use (see Para 1, Peter Brook reference.) Hermia and Helena appear in monastic grey, in contrast with their suitors’ sharp suits; but no one’s as splendidly clad as Theseus/Oberon, which strangely adds to his slight fragility and insecurity. Grant Olding’s original music is both haunting and happy; and if ever there was an award for the Best Ever Use of Johnny Nash in a West End Play – this is your winner.
There’s the always thorny decision to be taken when it’s a promenade production; do you stand or do you sit? At two hours forty minutes, plus the interval, depending on your level of fitness, it can take it out on both the feet and the back. And there will always be moments when you’re simply in the wrong place at the wrong time, and you just won’t see what everyone else sees. I know that Hippolyta did a great visual reaction in the first scene from the guffaws from the audience; but another of the characters was right in my way so I’ve no idea what she actually did. But for every naff moment like that, there’s the chance of a golden moment; we were right there when Helena was spoiling for a fight against Hermia, and when Oberon was going to get it on with Bottom; and Snug and I exchanged thumbs ups when Pyramus and Thisbe was chosen as the entertainment for the Duke’s nuptials. The best seated position is almost certainly the front row of Gallery One; but, despite all its complications, you can’t beat the thrill of being up close and personal with the cast in the pit. And the party end to the show is by far best enjoyed by the promenaders. Those in the seats looked on like they’d been left out of the invitations, whilst we were chucking enormous moon balls at each other and boogying with Puck and Demetrius.
Whilst there are serious aspects to the play – Egeus, after all, is preparing to have his daughter killed if she does not bend to his will as to whom she should marry, and Theseus is on his side in this matter – this production concentrates unashamedly on the humour. Not only from the role-reversals of Oberon and Titania, but also with a beautiful mesh of modern-day asides alongside the Elizabethan text. Seeking a calendar, Bottom borrows a mobile phone off a member of the audience (and you can guess how well that can go down). Theseus and Hippolyta critique the mechanicals with a modern twist; the preferment of Pyramus and Thisbe is shown in X-Factor terms; oh, yes, and there’s that Johnny Nash moment, as well as Beyoncé and Dizzee Rascal. Not like the Athens I’ve visited at all.
Although it is very much an ensemble piece there are a number of absolute stand-out performances. Oliver Chris is a very majestic Theseus who adores the sound of his own stentorian voice; the kind of authority figure who doesn’t walk, he sweeps; yet he retains a slight air of doubt, perfectly seen when Theseus talks to Bottom in Act Five and wonders if he remembered him from some vague encounter…? Gwendoline Christie is superb as the statuesque, no-nonsense Hippolyta and a most mischievous Titania. David Moorst is a fantastically agile and attitude-filled Puck; not one of the usual cutesy fairy characters, you could easily imagine this one beating you up behind the bikesheds if you got in his way. Perhaps funniest and most endearing of all, Hammed Animashaun is unbeatable as Bottom; a big kid who’ll sulk his way into the best parts, with a fantastic, larger-than-life chuckle and a huge heart to spread the positive energy of this play.
Isis Hainsworth and Tessa Bonham Jones are excellent as Hermia and Helena, Miss Jones taking every opportunity to mine the humour out of the character, and Miss Hainsworth feisty and fighty; as their suitors Paul Adeyefa and Kit Young make an enjoyable double act as the brash Demetrius and Lysander. In another sex change, Felicity Montagu turns in a brilliant comic performance as Mistress Quince, and all the other rude mechanicals make for a dream team of comedy; far and away the funniest portrayal of Pyramus and Thisbe (plus its rehearsals) that I’ve ever seen. And the supplementary fairies are all beautifully played with their face sparkles and acrobatic antics; butter wouldn’t melt when they’re in the sky, then they come down to earth and are – shall we say – delightfully human in their provision of comfort to Bottom the Ass.
Purists will be aghast. But the rest of us will absolutely love it. It’s playing at the Bridge right up until the end of August. That’s three shows this year that I’ve wanted to see again before we reached the interval; Company, Man of La Mancha, and now Midsummer Night’s Dream. So, how can I fit in another visit…?
Production photos by Manuel Harlan