Bridge Theatre’s gender-fluid forest frolics are all in A Midsummer Night’s Dream

United KingdomUnited Kingdom National Theatre Live – Bridge Theatre’s production of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream: recorded live at the Bridge Theatre and shown at Cineworld Basildon, Essex, 17.10.2019. (JPr)

Bridge Theatre’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream (c) Manuel Harlan

Director – Sir Nicholas Hytner
Production design – Bunny Christie
Costume design – Christina Cunningham
Composer – Grant Olding
Lighting design – Bruno Poet
Sound design – Paul Arditti
Movement director – Arlene Phillips
Associate Movement director – James Cousins

Paul Adeyefa – Demetrius
Charlotte Atkinson – Moth
Tessa Bonham Jones – Helena
Oliver Chris – Theseus/Oberon
Gwendoline Christie – Hippolyta/Titania
Isis Hainsworth – Hermia
Chipo Kureya – Peasebottom
Kevin McMonagle – Egeus
David Moorst – Philostrate/Puck
Lennin Nelson-McClure – Mustardseed
Rachel Tolzman – Bedbug
Jay Webb – Cobweb
Kit Young – Lysander
Rude Mechanicals – Hammed Animashaun (Bottom), Jermaine Freeman (Flute), Francis Lovehall (Starveling), Ami Metcalf (Snout), Jamie-Rose Monk (Snug), Felicity Montagu (Quince)

One of Bottom’s famous lines in A Midsummer Night’s Dream is ‘I have had a dream, past the wit of man to say what dream it was’. Well it is virtually beyond my wit to write what a Dream this was from Sir Nicholas Hytner and the Bridge Theatre. You must see it to believe it. After a sombre beginning, which lulls the audience into thinking this is yet another dark, psychoanalytical staging, it farcically descends – in all the best ways – into Carry On Bard with a diverse cast and a suitable nod – though not too much – to 2019 sensibilities.

Introducing the play that was recorded live during its run earlier this year, Samira Ahmed suggested a few lines were swopped because of Hytner introducing gender-fluidity and fluid-sexuality to Shakespeare’s tale focussing on three pairs of lovers, who must overcome obstacles and misunderstandings before being finally united in marriage. Of course, this being 2019 it is possible to second-guess Shakespeare and read too much into A Midsummer Night’s Dream that is not there, as there is never really any doubt that the outcome will be anything but happy. I believe this is what Hytner knows even though he begins it by referencing Margaret Attwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale where women are subjugated by a patriarchal society. Hermia loves Lysander, though her father, Egeus, wants her to marry Demetrius and has appealed to Theseus, the Duke of Athens, for support. Under Athenian law, if Hermia refuses her father’s command it would result in her being put to death or banished to a nunnery. Despite a choir – seen amongst the Bridge Theatre’s promenading audience before the start – singing sombre Psalms, and Hippolyta, the ultimate trophy wife-to-be with her hair concealed in a headscarf, on display in a glass case as she awaits her marriage to Theseus, we know an honour killing ‘ain’t gonna happen’ to Hermia and we can expect some hallucinogenic forest frolics will see ‘All’s Well that Ends Wells’. (Sorry wrong play!). As often happens the actors playing Theseus and Hippolyta double up as Oberon and Titania.

Hytner was seen in a recorded interview during the interval and explained his choice of A Midsummer Night’s Dream: ‘Any director of my generation came into the theatre probably because they saw Peter Brook’s famous production in the 1970s which turned me on to the idea that Shakespeare could be presented, and re-presented, and always valid and never stale … that production made such an impact on me [that] I avoided it until now and it was this theatre, the Bridge, that started to get me thinking about ways of doing it that would allow the audience to be on their feet, part of the action, part of the forest, and would allow me to call upon actors with aerial skills to provide the whole fairy world … [as] a kind of homage to Peter Brook.’

Bunny Christie’s ingenious set soon swings – in more ways than one! – into action. Different parts of the turf-covered set intermittent rise up from below whilst aerial silks hang down from the roof to allow some of the multi-talented ensemble of performers to display their outstanding trapeze skills, not least David Moorst’s rainbow-wristbanded, tattooed, streetwise, law unto his own Puck (Moorst apparently had no relevant circus experience before being cast in this production.) The almost total reversal of roles sees Titania speaks most of Oberon’s lines and vice versa. So, while I have almost forever claimed that the best Oberon I have ever seen was Robert Stephens for the BBC in 1971; at long last I have seen an Oberon to challenge him, now in the guise of Christie’s coolly commanding, somewhat Amazonian, Titania. Oliver Chris as the now-argumentative Oberon has a haughty mien to begins with that disintegrates when his drugged eyes see Bottom’s ass for the first time and the most improbable of Shakespearean liaisons takes a surprising turn which I never saw coming, not having previously read any reviews for this A Midsummer Night’s Dream. (To hear Bottom say to Oberon ‘Not now. I’ve got a headache’ was a side-splitting moment!)

Everything has by now degenerated – in a hilarious way – into a theatrical extravaganza that is a mashup of street theatre, carnival and The Greatest Showman. In Ross MacGibbon’s close-up camera work for the cinema Oliver Chris proves to have an accomplished flair for comedy and is part of a remarkable double act – look out for their Beyoncé-fuelled disco romp and a later bubble bath – with Hammed Animashaun as a near-perfect Bottom. He is the personification of self-deluded bombast, but this guileless Bottom must never be pitied and proves someone to be championed for his eternal optimism and enthusiasm.

Led by Felicity Montagu, as Mistress Quince, the rude mechanicals are unashamedly hapless; cue added humorous asides and audience interaction including (supposedly?) taking someone’s phone to check the calendar to see whether there will be moonshine on the night of their performance for Duke Theseus, as well as, for a cheeky selfie.

In all that is going on it is not easy for the young lovers to make their mark, but since not everybody in this production is playing their role entirely ‘straight’ you can imagine – if however briefly –  the possible romantic permutations of Kit Young’s guitar strumming smartarse Lysander, Isis Hainsworth’s besotted but quick-tempered Hermia, as well as, Paul Adeyela’s fickle Demetrius and Tessa Bonham Jones’s perennially lovelorn Helena who complete the winsome quartet.

A wealth of imagination and invention has gone into what we see; the interplay between the characters, Christina Cunningham’s colourful costumes, Bruno Poet’s atmospheric lighting and a brilliant choice of music. I certainly wonder whether we – the cinema audience – had the ‘best seat in the house’ thanks to NT Live. Hytner’s direction and Christie’s designs notwithstanding, kudos to Arlene Phillips as movement director and the circus captain, Lennin Nelson-McClure (Mustardseed), for their work. Undoubtedly this production has made me fall in love with A Midsummer Night’s Dream all over again. (Truthfully, I have really fallen out of love with it!) Despite the rather ambiguous ending and whether (further spoiler alert!) it was all a dream-within-a-dream, I am unlikely to ever see a better one and do hope to see this again; either in the theatre, on the small screen, or as a DVD.

Jim Pritchard

For more about what is on at the Bridge Theatre click here.
For more about National Theatre Live click here.

2 thoughts on “Bridge Theatre’s gender-fluid forest frolics are all in <i>A Midsummer Night’s Dream</i>”

  1. Not the whimsical, insipid children’s play we did at school with described magic and prancing fairies but instead an alive, noisy and vigorous production, which grabbed us, made us watch and listen and also made us laugh – a lot.

    The four young lovers were furious and tender and stroppy and so real, the switching of lines between Oberon and Titania only deepened the humour and strength of their performances, the mechanicals were slickly imperfect and funny (lovely Bottom), and Puck slid and squirmed between all the characters , sharp and acid.

    The only slightly uneven note was the psalm singing and headscarves at the beginning. It wasn’t needed to underscore the patriarchy; the first page of text sets it out clearly. It jarred a little but the rest of the performance was superb; one of the best pieces of theatre I’ve ever seen. We experienced magic.


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