thu 25/07/2024

A Midsummer Night's Dream, National Theatre At Home review – a mad delight | reviews, news & interviews

A Midsummer Night's Dream, National Theatre At Home review – a mad delight

A Midsummer Night's Dream, National Theatre At Home review – a mad delight

Nicholas Hytner makes the familiar gloriously strange in this slippery, sumptuous show

A light-footed, dancing thing: Oliver Chris and Gwendoline Christie in A Midsummer Night's DreamManuel Harlan

Nicholas Hytner’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, filmed for NT Live at the Bridge Theatre last summer, is – as it gleefully acknowledges – completely bonkers. But it doesn’t start out that way.

A troop of actors trudge through the audience, singing dirge-like psalms in dark suits and The Handmaid’s Tale-esque headwraps. This is Athens, a terrifyingly patriarchal society in which a woman can be killed for refusing to marry the man her father chooses. It’s the part of the play you always forget: the waking nightmare, which makes the flight into the forest all the more desperate. 

Gwendoline Christie in A Midsummer Night's Dream at the Bridge TheatreIt’s a testament to Hytner’s skill that he’s able to balance dream and reality so well. His trick is to switch up Titania (Gwendoline Christie, pictured right) and Oberon’s (Oliver Chris) lines: here, it’s the fairy king who falls in love with an ass-headed mortal, the queen who manipulates him via Puck (a genuinely otherworldly David Moorst). But Oberon and Bottom’s (Hammed Animashaun) relationship isn’t the butt of the joke. Everything is imbued with such warmth and fondness that it’s like the show is laughing with the audience every step of the way. NT Live can’t recreate the experience of being in the crowd, but you can still feel the sheer delight of this production. “Plays are boring!” Puck whines when he comes across the Rude Mechanicals. Not this one, Robin. 

The versatility of Bunny Christie’s set suits the play’s shifting ground perfectly. Characters disappear into the audience and pop up in unexpected places. The audience disappears and pops up in unexpected places – kudos to the stage crew for what’s essentially an extended exercise in crowd control. This is a play that reminds us of the word’s roots: a light-footed, dancing thing, as graceful as the fairies spinning on their aerial silks (inspired by Peter Brook’s 1970 production for the RSC). Moorst had only had three months’ training before rehearsals started, but just watching him swoop and tumble is enough to make your feet cramp. 

Animashaun (pictured below), along with Kit Young (a superbly angsty Lysander) and Isis Hainsworth (an all-guns-blazing Hermia), was nominated for the Ian Charleson Award for his performance, with good reason: it’s like Bottom was written for him. He’s witty, coy, sweet, and vulnerable, sometimes all in a matter of seconds. He can do things with his eyes that most actors can’t do with their whole bodies. And he makes full use of Hytner’s penchant for weaving extra lines seamlessly into the text, bringing Shakespeare just that little bit closer to today. As does the Titania-Oberon switch, of course. Sexualities and gender presentations are slipped on and off as smoothly as Oberon’s gorgeous golden robe (costumes by Christina Cunningham), all to a sumptuous soundtrack of Beyoncé and Florence and the Machine. 

Hammed Animashaun in A Midsummer Night's Dream at the Bridge Theatre

The play escapes a tragic ending by the skin of its teeth, thanks to Titania/Hippolyta. As with all good adaptations, it’s difficult to see how it could have been any other way. Of course it makes more sense for Titania to run fairy rings around Oberon, and for her gentle reminder of his affair with Bottom to nudge him into a more lenient attitude towards the lovers. Who would deny the magnificent Christie all the power she wants? Even shut up in a glass box like she’s on Naked Attraction, she’s more prowling tiger than caged bird. She and Chris are brilliant together, all the more so when he’s struck by a beautifully-timed attack of the giggles. That it doesn’t kill the mood illustrates perfectly the calibre of spell the show has cast. 

A Midsummer Night’s Dream has a vaguely apocalyptic air about it – there’s a sense that a danger more threatening than the fairies’ harmless mischief is lurking just underneath the surface. But this show is still the perfect escape back into a world where people moved through thronged crowds and clasped strangers’ hands unthinkingly. 

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