They say that you can wait for ages for one London bus and then two come along at once – the same could be said for Shakespeare plays. Granted, you don’t often have to wait for a certain selection of them, but you’re pretty much guaranteed to get at least two different productions within a few months of each other; A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Bridge Theatre was the first of the major triumvirate of productions to surface in London this summer, reuniting the team behind last year’s Julius Caesar for another promenade spectacular. Starring Gwendoline Christie and Oliver Chris, once again audience members have the option to either sit or be part of the fun down in the pit.
Theseus has captured Hippolyta to be his bride, and is quickly called upon to resolve a dispute between Egeus and his daughter Hermia. Threatened with death, life in a nunnery, or marriage to Demetrius, she chooses the secret fourth option of running away with Lysander, the man she loves. Her friend Helena follows them (along with Demetrius) and, thanks to a mistake with some love juice by the sprite Puck, the relationships between the four start to get a little complicated. Meanwhile, the Fairy Queen, Titania, seeks revenge on the Fairy King, Oberon, because he won’t give her his little changeling boy – she chooses humiliation as her weapon, anointing his eye with love juice, causing him to fall head over heels for Nick Bottom, a weaver (with newly-added asses’ ears) who is rehearsing a play for Theseus’ wedding party with his colleagues Quince, Snug, Starveling and Snout. Love really is in the air…
Those of you who are familiar with the story will notice one key change in the synopsis: the tables have been turned and it is Titania who gets to wreak mischief with love-in-idleness rather than Oberon. Whilst in some ways it pushes her out of the centre of events, in terms of storytelling it’s an absolute masterstroke – it takes the woman out of the role of victim, allowing her to have a bit of fun at her husband’s expense. It also subtly acts as Hippolyta teaching Theseus a bit of a lesson, to help the lovers and to receive slightly better treatment herself. These gender switches could probably go further, but this still marks a refreshing change and, importantly, all fits together perfectly.
The contrast between the looks of the two worlds (mortal & fairy land) is stark – the sober, dystopian feel of Theseus’ dukedom evokes thoughts of The Handmaid’s Tale, whilst the woods are freer & more flamboyant. Christina Cunningham’s designs for Oberon, Titania, Puck and the fairies have a whiff of glam rock about them, glitter and sequins (as well as the gymnastics and circus displays) adding the touch of magic that this play deserves.
The promenading aspect is understandably much less rough than last time – though I decided not to chance it and sat up in the gallery instead – resembling a festival or party rather than a political rally. You do have to be prepared to move around, as bits of stage pop up around the pit and various props are wheeled on and off – plus you have the added thrill of beds and fairies being suspended above your head at times…
As well as its storytelling prowess and magical touch, it is simply hysterical. Of the lovers, Isis Hainsworth and Kit Young stand out, as a ballsy Hermia and a Lysander who is a bit of a dreamer. David Moorst seems to relish the opportunity to tell off audience members who are stood in his way (“Londoners!”), exuding mischief from his every pore – while Gwendoline Christie is imperious yet fun-loving as Titania, clearly loving every second and longing to make sport with the mortals herself.
All of the Rude Mechanicals are absolutely delightful, but it’s Hammed Animashaun who steals the show; he makes it obvious that Bottom is incredibly confident in his own abilities, but not so much as to get on everyone’s nerves – and his performance as Pyramus in the play within a play had me crying with hysterical laughter (completely out of control by the time his death scene concluded). Animashaun’s partnership with an incredibly game Oliver Chris as the smitten Oberon is comedy gold, and in parts it’s strangely endearing; Chris’ comic chops and mastery of the text make for a winning combination. He is very well matched with Christie (in height and temperament), creating a pair of ultimately warm relationships that the audience can’t help but engage with.
Very rarely does a show come along that manages to combine dark and light so effectively, capturing the audience’s imagination and filling them with unadulterated joy. The Dream of the summer, without a shadow of a doubt.
My verdict? A bold & magical spin on a well loved play, brought hilariously to life by an effortlessly dreamy cast – this summer’s must-see Shakespeare.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream runs at the Bridge Theatre until 31 August 2019. Tickets are available online or from the box office.