Nicholas Hytner gives us an utterly inspired take on A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Bridge Theatre, with Gwendoline Christie in stupendous form
“Come now; what masques, what dances shall we have”
You can tell a lot about a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream from the way it treats its Hippolyta. Possessed of so few words, her presence is nevertheless vital for setting the tone of the play and from the moment you walk into the Bridge Theatre, you just know Nicholas Hytner has got it right. This conquered queen is caged in a glass box, as if an artefact in some grotesque museum and as an impassive Gwendoline Christie fixes us with her stare, it’s a definitive commentary on the gender politics here before we’ve even started.
But even once the play starts, her power is no less unremarkable. As Hermia claims she knows not by what power she is made bold, one look at Hippolyta’s hand against the glass leaves you in no doubt of the source of her new found confidence. Small but powerful changes that set the scene perfectly for Hytner’s most striking innovation which, as it reveals itself in the following act, proved to be one of the most thrilling ways to re-infuse excitement into this oft-performed classic.
For Titania and Oberon have swapped roles, he’s the one who ends up at the mercy of his partner’s magical mischievousness, and the shift in power dynamic is a really interesting one to observe. Christie revels in the increased line-count (her “I know a bank where the wild thyme blows…” is exquisite) and brings a real playfulness to her fairy monarch and as her counterpart, Oliver Chris is game indeed as he dotes on Hammed Animashaun’s Bottom, a relationship played more comically than sensually here (which ultimately feels right for this production although it also has the troubling side-effect of encouraging laughter at two men kissing…).
This is a very funny Dream, and a joyful one too. The comic chemistry between the Rude Mechanicals is apparent from the off and utterly delightful to behold from chaotic rehearsal to X-Factor-ish waiting games to a frankly hilarious rendition of the Prologue. And if the pyjama-clad quartet of lovers, cast rather young here, pale just a little bit by comparison in their scenes, they come into their own once they enter ‘dream-land’ with Hytner once again queering the pitch unexpectedly and successfully.
The show utilises the same promenade approach introduced with Julius Caesar last year, which allows for an element of immersiveness for those standing in the pit. What really works though is the height of the production. These fairies have been to circus school (literally so in the case of David Moorst, a camp Northern comedian of a Puck) and Bunny Christie’s design, with Arlene Phillips’ movement direction and Christina Cunningham’s costumes, has a gorgeous visual impact as it soars.
As the first of three major Dreams opening in London this summer (though that’s nothing, I saw six in 2016), this sets the (trapeze) bar very high indeed. More than anything, this feels like a truly contemporary Dream without ever forcing it, highlighting its underlying thoughts about gender just enough, as in the moment when Jermaine Freeman’s Flute draws together his “sisters three” from the noble ladies of the court. Beautifully done.
Running time: 2 hours 45 minutes (with interval)
Photos: Manuel Harlan
A Midsummer Night’s Dream is booking at the Bridge Theatre until 31st August