William Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Director: Nicholas Hytner, Br/dge Theatre
Inevitably this is haunted. At one extreme, there is the Max Rheinhart film, with bunny rabbits and nature, at the other is Peter Brook’s circus and trapeze acts, of which little footage survives. Hytner is drawing on the latter, with his ringmaster Puck and Oberon’s attendant fairies dangling from and swinging around sheets. For that matter, Titania has her fair share of hanging around.
But it is also haunted by last year’s similarly promenaded Julius Caesar, reuniting the same creative team. Whilst there the crowd became the plebeian masses, swayed by one tyrant or another, here there is much less sense of why they are there, especially once the action goes into the green world outside Athens. Again, they are herded around, and both Bottom (Hammed Animashaun) and Puck (David Moorst) interact directly with the promenaders.
Moorst, with his remarkable athletic skills, acid wit, camp polymorphosity and sense of meter, comes close to stealing the show, perhaps appropriate with his ringmastering and final epilogue — a speech which of course enlists the audience’s complicity. Last year, he was Andy the YTS lad in Alan Bennett’s Allelujah, to my mind a rather underwritten part that nevertheless had a couple of moments of LGBT acceptance which reminded us times have changed. Moorst’s accent slips from Northern to Brummie at one strategic point, but Puck is a tricksy spirit.
The plot is familiariously complex — Theseus (Oliver Chris) is about to wed the captured Hippolyta (Gwendoline Christie) when he learns that young Hermia (Isis Hainsworth) wants to marry Lysander (Kit Young) rather than her father’s choice of Demetrius (Paul Adeyefa). The two lovers run away into the forest, followed by Demetrius and Helena who desires him but has been spurned. The four walk into the middle of a domestic between Oberon (Oliver Chris) and Titania (Gwendoline Christie) with the latter deciding to enchant the fairy king so he falls in love with a random person or animal and instructing Puck to ensure Demetrius falls in love with Helena.
Naturally, this goes wrong.
Meanwhile, a group of Athenian artisans have gone to the forest to rehearse a play for the wedding, and the chief actor is given donkeys ears so that it is he that Oberon falls in love with.
Yes, Oberon, not Titania, and this has good and bad effects. There is the conventional doubling of the authority couple, and Hippolyta has thus far been seen in a glass cage, very much Theseus’ property. To switch the enchanter is to offer more agency to a female character, frankly to give her the better lines.
Oberon gets more laughs.
This ups the ante of exoticised difference. Oberon is white and aristocratic; Bottom is black and working class. We are invited to laugh at the relationship, even as it offers some glorious spectacle — meanwhile the shuffling of the young lovers’ desires leads to some same sex interaction. The reaction to such intimacy ought to have got beyond a binary choice between horror and laughter.
The radical shift would have been for Oberon to stay with Bottom — although Theseus and Bottom distinctly share a moment. We also end up with an auditorium wide rainbow flag.
Hytner cranks up the spectacle, adding lighting effects, pop music, even a snatch of Jimmy Cliff which seems as appropriately inappropriate a Shakespearean moment as any I’ve seen since Jarman added “Stormy Weather” to the end of his The Tempest. I suspect this isn’t the first Shakespeare play to add an f-word, but I’d lay money it’s the first to have a joke about fisting. Purists may bristle, but fuck em. It is a crowd pleaser, but none the less fun for that.
I suspect Hytner will be tempted to a third Shakespeare in the round, and my money would be on a history play, the wooden O of Henry V. Watch this empty space.