National Theatre At Home review: A Midsummer Night’s Dream
Ivan Radford | On 01, Jul 2020
“The course of true love never did run smooth,” observes Lysander in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and the Bridge Theatre’s 2019 production takes that sentiment and runs with it – smooth, bumpy, hot, cold, sideways, backwards and then some. It’s a gloriously playful affair, one that flirts with invention and then takes it home and marries it.
Staged in the round, but with an immersive quality, the play follows in the footsteps of the similarly ambitious Julius Caesar in 2018, inviting the audience to stand around the actors where the stalls would normally be, creating an interactive space where they become part of the set and scenery. In Julius Caesar, the result was a gripping, visceral transformation of the auditorium from crowded political rallies to loud warzone. Here, it’s a stunning leap from serious reality to fantastical magic, complete with aerial aerobatics above onlookers’ heads. Production designer Bunny Christie’s set, made up of moving parts, rises out of the floor and glides out of sight, perfectly fitting for the luscious, lustful forest in which a group of lovers end up wrong-footed, up-ended and head over heels, often all at once.
While the plot is the same – Hermia (an enjoyably take-no-prisoners Isis Hainsworth) and Lysander (an entertainingly anxious Kit Young) flee into the words to escape her disapproving father, followed by Hermia’s admirer, Demetrius, and Helena, who loves him – there are big surprises when they go down into the woods: where normally we then see fairy king Oberon and fairy queen Titania meddle with the quartet, via the impish Puck (David Moorst), director Nicholas Hytner swaps Oberon and Titania’s lines around. The result is an imperious fairy queen who rules the roost, played with a brilliantly renewed sense of agency by Gwendoline Christie. Oberon, meanwhile, becomes a softened figure, who is bewitched into falling in love with Bottom, a carpenter who is part of a troupe of amateur actors rehearsing in the forest. Bottom, for those unfamiliar with the text, has been transformed by Puck into a donkey.
Oliver Chris is incredible as Oberon, who dives into his unexpected romance with unrestrained glee; the scene where they dance together on a rotating bed, accompanied by Beyoncé, is one of the most joyous things you’ll ever see in a theatre. Crucially, the cast manage to laugh with the characters rather than at them, turning it into a joyful celebration of their unusual attraction. That’s partly thanks to Hammed Animashaun’s scene-stealing performance as Bottom, the arrogant would-be thespian who moves from loud and proud to timid and terrified in the blink of an eye. By the time he and the rest of his group are taking the phone of someone in the audience to check a calendar, and pretend to scroll through its contents, you’ll be hee-hawing with laughter.
The result is a fresh, funny adaptation of a familiar Shakespeare tale – one that follows the similarly modern Twelfth Night, which also streamed as part of the National Theatre At Home weekly free online releases. It lasts a couple of hours but flies by in a second, like a dream that leaves you waking up with a startled smile, unsure whether what you watched really did just happen.