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A Midsummer Night's Dream

William Shakespeare
The Bridge Theatre
NT Live

Gwendoline Christie as Hippolyta Credit: Manuel Harlan
Jermaine Freeman as Flute, Hammed Animashaun as Bottom, Felicity Montagu as Quince, Francis Lovehall as Starveling, Ami Metcalf as Snout and Jamie-Rose Monk as Snug Credit: Manuel Harlan
Paul Adeyefa as Demetrius, Tessa Bonham Jones as Helena and Kit Young as Lysander Credit: Manuel Harlan
Gwendoline Christie as Hippolyta and Oliver Chris as Theseus Credit: Manuel Harlan
David Moorst as Puck Credit: Manuel Harlan

Nicholas Hytner’s 2019 production at The Bridge Theatre has a promenading audience in the stalls among whom moveable green platforms provide acting surfaces along with brass bedsteads, some of which become airborne along with fairies hanging overhead in silk swings.

Those beds are a reminder that it is not just the audience who are invited to view this play as a dream but almost everyone as it wakes up from a dream of some kind, not necessarily a pleasant one. There’s an undercurrent of conflict. It may start off looking forward to a wedding but, as Hytner emphasises, Duke Theseus and Amazon Queen Hippolyta aren’t a love match. She is his defeated captive and is wheeled in a prisoner in a glass box.

The fairies too have been in conflict, disrupting our world and its weather, ruining crops and flooding pasture, the parallels underlined by the now almost usual doubling of the mortal and fairy rulers. Here Hytner has made a major innovation. He keeps Shakespeare’s words but gives Oberon’s lines, followers and action to Titania and vice versa. It is she, aided by her attendant Puck, who now decides to interfere with the lusts and affections of her erstwhile partner and of the young lovers, who flee to the forest to escape a forced marriage to the mismatched other who follows them, led by the girl who loves him.

It is now Gwendoline Christie’s Titania who takes control, but it’s Oliver Chris as Oberon who gains an extra layer of comic opportunity as we see him infatuatedly in love with a donkey-headed Bottom, the weaver rehearsing Pyramus in an amateur play being prepared by a group of local workers.

I cannot imagine a better Bottom than that of Hammed Animashaun. Bully Bottom his mates may call him, but that’s for his enthusiasm and nothing nasty. He’s gentle, caring and popular among them, his enthusiasm and nothing nasty, his acyrologia (malapropisms as we now call them) endearing, while Oberon’s amorous attentions seem to open up a new world: a scene with the two of them in a bubble bath perhaps the high spot of his dream, though at another moment he does answer the fairy king’s advances with an irritated, “not now, I’ve got a headache.” Text and verse are well delivered and the occasional clever insertions come across like adlibs.

Mrs Quince and her amateur actors’ performance don’t send up the play within the play. Bottom and Jermaine Freeman’s Thisbe may both overdo their dying, but it’s all done most sincerely—and therefore really funny.

There is a lively quartet of young lovers (Isis Hainsworth as Hermia, Kit Young as Lysander, Paul Adeyefa as Demetrius and Tessa Bonham Jones a particularly strong Helena), Puck’s playing with their gender pairing adding to their bafflement on awakening, while David Moorst’s punk Puck, cavorting through the air or disappearing through a mattress, helps drive the energy of this fine production.

I sometimes feel another Dream will just be too much, but this one has a freshness that makes it well worth watching.

Reviewer: Howard Loxton