August 28, 2019, by Peter Kirwan
A Midsummer Night’s Dream @ The Bridge Theatre
‘Not for my fairy kingdom’ roared Oliver Chris’s Oberon during his big fight with Gwendoline Christie’s Titania, early in the Bridge Theatre’s Midsummer Night’s Dream. The subtle textual change was part of an extensive series of adjustments designed to allow Oberon to remain King of the Forest while putting him on the receiving end of the love potion trick, in a gender reversal that cast the power politics of the play in a new light while delivering an exuberant, genuinely funny production.
In Nicholas Hytner’s promenade version,the forest was a direct answer to Theseus’s (Chris again) repressive grey court, where citizens sung communal hymns to the beat of a drum and women wore drab smocks and headscarves reminiscent of Margaret Atwood’s handmaids. Hippolyta (Christie) was brought in standing austere and upright in a glass case with an exhibition label, a prisoner and showpiece to Chris’s oily autocrat – in a particularly unpleasant moment, he leaned close in to the case and leered, triumphant in his display of his defeated enemy. But Hippolyta became animated by Hermia’s plight, reaching out a hand to the young woman, and smiling at her as she was taken away.
Built around a set made up of beds and bunk beds on plinths that rose from the floor of the pit, the forest emerged as a literal dream, with Oberon and Hippolyta sleeping in separate beds as Puck (David Moorst) and Peaseblossom (Chipo Kureya) entered. The two fairies hung from the ceiling via sheets that allowed them to perform aerial ropework, a spectacular and skillful choice especially given the proximity of the promenading audience. And then, Theseus and Hippolyta stood up from their beds and let their sheets fall away to reveal their costumes as Oberon and Titania. The reversal of the two characters’ roles allowed Oberon’s privilege to echo that of Theseus – here, it was the man who had a troupe of fairies attending him, and the man who was withholding the Indian Boy from the woman; like Theseus, keeping Titania in her place and refusing to share power. As such, the love-in-idleness trick became a reclamation of power on Titania’s own terms, subverting the forest’s hierarchies to claim a space for herself. Christie was never less than utterly charming in the role, selling a difficult role with laughter and mischief.
Such a reversal of power structures worked well with the ‘immersive’ space. There was no strong spatial rationale for the promenade staging, and at times the rising platforms felt just cluttered and messy. But there was also no especial reason not to do something that the 2018 Julius Caesar had generated a great deal of buzz about, and if nothing else, the ever-changing performance space allowed a lot more people to be up close to the actors at different points than in a space with a fixed stage (and by and large, the stewarding was a lot gentler than for Caesar). But standing in the pit, the production generated a surprising amount of collaborative performance among a willing crowd that, at its most transcendent, achieved spectacular effects. The pulling of a sheet over the heads of the pit audience to effect the transformation back from the forest to the court was a collaboratively created physical realisation of a filmic wipe; the pit audience taking each other’s hands and moving in circles to bless the court looked like a whirlpool; and the grand parade to ‘Love on Top’ as Bottom and Oberon got together was uniquely joyful.
On the latter, the production felt at times like a sincere celebration of queerness, bolstered by the vocal enthusiasm of the audience. On spying Hammed Animashaum’s Bottom from his suspended bed, Chris’s Oberon was rapt, but never ridiculous. His calm, articulate wooing of Bottom was fully interested and confident, and entirely persuasive in winning over Bottom, who shrugged and got on with it. There was a lovely sense from the fairies that Oberon’s choice of a male donkey as a paramour was entirely within the bounds of normality, and a gloriously cute moment from Peaseblossom had her squeaking ‘I love him!!’ to Oberon. And then, to shrieks of delight as Oberon pulled open his shirt, ‘Love on Top’ kicked in and the bed on which they stood was paraded around the pit with the audience dancing and clapping in its wake, while the fairies performed a synchronised aerial routine above our heads. It was a joyful celebration, and the mens’ reappearance in a bathtub drinking champagne later brought further cheers (and more appreciation for Chris clad only in bubbles as he walked over to get his dressing gown).
At other times, the production’s indulgence felt less benign. During the four-way fight between the lovers, a playful Puck and Titania – hovering over the lovers – added in some extra transformations, first causing Lysander (Kit Young) and Demetrius (Paul Adeyefa) to fall in love with one another, and then more problematically Hermia (Isis Hainsworth) and Helena (Tessa Bonham Jones), causing Lysander and Demetrius to pause their squabbling and run over to gaze ecstatically on the women beginning to kiss. These cheap gags, fetishising rather than celebrating homosexuality and making it into a joke purely for Titania’s delight, were the one moment where the comedy felt smutty rather than celebratory, and necessitated a confused moment as the lovers parted for bed at the production’s end, in which the lovers tried to briefly reconcile their memories of the night with their feelings for one another, a potentially interesting moment which needed much more than the cheap turns earlier to prepare for it. Rather better was Oberon and Titania’s reconciliation – crucially, the line ‘Oh how I loathe his visage now’ was cut, allowing Oberon to be puzzled but not at Bottom’s expense, and as Titania called for ‘I Can See Clearly Now’ to play, the two burst into laughter and embraced, accepting one another as an equal partnership.
The transformation bled through into Athens, too. As Theseus listened to Egeus’s (Kevin McMonagle) calls for Lysander and Hermia to be punished, the four lovers cowered. But at that moment, Hippolyta told Theseus to look up, and he saw the bed containing Bottom moving overhead while snatches of their dialogue played. Pleasingly, the production didn’t try to explain the affinity between Titania and Hippolyta, but her small smile betrayed her control as Theseus found the potential for mercy and relaxed the constraints of Athenian society, allowing for a celebratory final act. Egeus was left bitter for the remainder of the play, but this small interpolation allowed the Athens of Act 5 to be substantially changed from that of Act 1, in a way few productions I’ve seen have successfully managed before.
The remainder of the production was good spirited throughout, bolstered by excellent use of the vertical space – the aerial choreography and suspended beds a much better way of keeping people in view than the shifting platforms – and a loose approach to the text that admitted plenty of wry asides and contemporary jokes. Moorst’s Merseyside Puck – a punk compared to the glam and glitter of Oberon’s fairies – was wry and laconic as he told the pit audience to get out of his way and moaned about Londoners, then exuberant as he threw himself into a crowd-surf when running off to find the flower. Hermia screamed ‘I’ll fucking have you’ or words to that effect as she lunged for Helena, and throughout the freedom to ad lib contributed to a relaxed festival atmosphere in the theatre.
The lovers perhaps suffered most from the many distractions of the pit, their plot driving the action rather than becoming the focus of comedy. Lysander was insufferable, carrying a guitar and composing trite songs in celebration of Hermia and then Helena. Helena and Hermia were particularly good when squabbling, their barely concealed childhood grievances immediately coming to the fore – and Helena, unusually, threw herself on Demetrius, taking momentary advantage of his infatuation to ensure her protection. The travels through the wood were the clumsiest parts of staging as they scrambled over bunk beds and talked across the room, and for some reason the lovers were the performers for whom the miked up voices were most distracting, slightly displacing their vocal performances from their positions on the stage.
The Mechanicals, however, were glorious. Animashaun was a confident Bottom, insistent and persistent without being over the top, and entirely winning from the start. Felicity Montagu’s Quince was an enthusiastic community worker armed with stickers and ideas, and her take on amateur dramatics led for some lovely metatheatrical commentary. Casting her ‘Pyramus and Thisbe’ race- and gender-blind, the other actors rolled their eyes at casting choices they considered inappropriate – Starveling (Francis Lovehall), a black man, told to play the mother of Thisbe, and the white female Quince taking on the role of Bottom’s father. Ami Metcalf’s Snout was unimpressed at everything, and the large Snug (Jamie-Rose Monk) strode on stage in boiler suit to the fear of all the other Mechanicals, in particular setting up an antagonism with Starveling, who seemed emasculated by the powerful woman. The antagonisms within the group were repeatedly off-set by amusing adlibbing, most effectively when soliciting an iPhone from audience members to check the calendar for moonlight; Starveling sent some rude texts, Bottom scrolled through the audience member’s photos, and then the Mechanicals took a group selfie before handing it back.
‘Pyramus and Thisbe’ offered a fine distillation of the production’s ideas, illustrating both a changed Athens and the creative impulses of the Mechanicals. Surprisingly, it was Theseus who held everything together. During a very funny choice of entertainment – at which a group of smoking, balloon-wearing Bacchanals was the highlight among the rejected acts, however much Demetrius said ‘they look really cool!’ – Theseus put his foot down about the value of honest entertainment by working people, and he was entirely transported throughout the A-level Theatre Studies-baiting ‘Pyramus and Thisbe’, remarking throughout on how clever the choices were (Wall holding up two bricks as a chink), slamming down Demetrius every time he made a rude comment, scornfully telling the others ‘it’s immersive‘ (to one of the best reactions of the night from the audience), and applauding sincerely, finally giving the ‘mind blown’ gesture to Bottom as he congratulated him. The lovers were mocking or hysterical throughout, and Titania veered between ecstatic hilarity and boredom, but a transformed Theseus had learned how to experience wonder, and his generosity of spirit was humbling. The performance itself was very funny: the opening synopsis involved an interpretive dance that was suitably over-the-top; Snout’s utter disdain for his role climaxed with him trying to leave halfway through saying ‘It’s really shit’; and when Starveling took off Snug’s lion hat, Snug lost it and beat him up onstage. Bottom and Starveling wrestled with a series of electronic toys including a knock-off lightsaber that he was using as his sword, and the long death sequence descended into chaos.
In a surprisingly sweet twist, Flute/Thisbe beckoned Helena, Hermia and Hippolyta to join her onstage for her own death, holding hands in a circle with the three as she invoked the ‘three sisters’. This was partly an excuse to put the lightsaber in the hands of Star Wars actor Christie, onto which Thisbe then threw herself to Hippolyta’s shriek. The three women were left standing alone on the stage, the crumpled bodies of the lovers at their feet, in a momentarily sober moment before Bottom arrived. The sight of the women holding hands introduced the collectivism of the final moments, first as the Mechanicals danced ‘Bonkers’ for their bergomask, joined by the lovers and finally by Theseus, who stole Bottom’s thunder at the dance’s climax, just before the two had a moment of apparent recognition and were separated by Hippolyta. And then, the company joined hands with the pit audience to bless the theatre, and two enormous inflatable moons were released into the audience over the curtain calls, the cast and audience dancing to Beyoncé together.