“What angel wakes me from my flowery bed?” A plethora of productions of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, that’s what! Yes, every year it seems that one or other of Shakespeare’s plays is the one to get your teeth into, and this summer that honour appears to have fallen on the much-loved comedy with fairies and mechanicals. At one point you could have had a pair of two-show days that consisted of four different versions – three still remain, though this number will dwindle to a paltry two by the end of the day.
But what could possibly be the motivation for performing this particular play? The Globe has included it in their season that explores “this sceptred isle”, though given that it’s set in Athens and its neighbouring forest I can’t quite tie the two together. Perhaps it was a case of being inspired by the full-on summer of 2018, and the expectation of a repeat? At this point (barring a few stretches of seasonal weather) it feels almost like producers are shutting the stable door after the ass has bolted.
Maybe it’s something slightly deeper than that. The dream aspect of the play is vital – Puck’s closing speech can suggest that everything you’ve watched was simply a dream, and this can be played up by creatives in each production. Given the continuing uncertainty worldwide, and the fact that a Nick Bottom-esque character now appears to be running the country, we could be forgiven for wishing that this was all some sort of extended dream from which we will all wake up.
With such a well-worn classic there is obviously a risk of similar productions being mounted at the same time – even if you’re thinking outside of the box, there’s always the chance that someone else is on your wavelength!
However, it’s almost as if the major three London teams conferred with each other to make sure each was different (though why they couldn’t have talked before deciding on the same play, I will never know), as they all have their own individual spin on the play. Unfortunately I didn’t get to see the Shakespeare in the Squares version, though those are usually actor-muso affairs and so that would set it apart if nothing else. As followers of #MindTheBard will know, I did manage to see the Regent’s Park Open Air and Bridge Theatre versions within a couple of days of one another – and I’d seen the Globe production the week before.
Whilst I really did enjoy them all, and appreciated the different emphasis each of them had, the Bridge’s is by far and away my favourite. It’s certainly the funniest (I’ve not been reduced to tears of hysterical laughter at Pyramus & Thisbe since Emma Rice’s production), plus Nicholas Hytner has made innovations that I hadn’t previously considered – and it’s great for those who aren’t massive Shakespeare fans usually. If you enjoyed the style and the staging on Julius Caesar last year then definitely give it a go, as the same creative team has reunited to bring the Dream to life.
All three versions have a bit of gender switching going on, though it’s a bit depressing that the lovers don’t seem to be considered for this (yes, I still miss Helenus). It’s interesting that the Globe and Regent’s Park have both opted for a female Bottom, and the Bridge and Globe have a female Quince (a regular occurrence); there is an intriguing range of Pucks – male at the Bridge, female at Regent’s Park, and everyone pitching in at the Globe. What the Bridge cleverly does is combine a new opportunity for a female actor with an equally exciting new opportunity for a male actor: their Oberon and Titania have their roles reversed, so Titania finally gets her revenge on Oberon – and as the same actors play Theseus and Hippolyta, the suggestion of a memory pulls through to help her gain some respectful treatment during their marriage.
The variation in darkness is interesting to note, with Regent’s Park really going for it (but not ruining the play à la Joe Hill-Gibbins) and the Bridge plays up this aspect in the ‘real’ world to set it off from fairy land. Sean Holmes’ production at the Globe is a marked contrast, brimming with laughs and carnival spirit throughout, going full throttle on thte comedy pedal.
There’s something fun about the very different sets of fairies in each show, too. At the Globe, they go all out to suit Jean Chan’s brightly-coloured theme, looking like psychedelic aliens – whereas the Bridge is far more acrobatic in nature, with the fairies putting on jaw-dropping gymnastic displays, and in Regent’s Park they are quite Tim Burton-like, though with a nice extra touch of employing movement and BSL to create their characters.
I could probably go on and on, but those are the most important (and hopefully interesting) things that I want to highlight. I’d thoroughly recommend them all (though this evening’s weather may have something to say about that…), as they do feel like three very different plays. However, if you can only stomach one Dream then look no further than the Bridge Theatre. The best combination of innovation, entertainment, and Shakespeare spirit you’ll see this summer.