Does A Midsummer Night’s Dream need tinkering with? Director Nicholas Hytner seems to think so in the veteran’s first stab at Shakespeare’s play of sylvan love-play, fairy magic and the potentially lethal perils of love. But he does more than tinker with it – he turns it on his head.
One of the beauties of the play is its perfect construction – the Athenian King and Queen finding their parallels in their fairy world, Theseus and his kidnapped bride Hippolyta mirrored by the fairy Monarchs Oberon and Titania. But what Hytner does is invert the fairy Kingdom. Oberon (Oliver Chris) becomes King of the fairies, speaking Titania’s lines, and Titania (Gwendoline Christie) speaks Oberon’s lines.
It’s a drastic re-ordering which means that Titania (and not Oberon) controls the mischievous Puck, putting love juice in the mortals’ eyes and creating the chaos that threatens tragedy before the comic resolution. It also gives a very different spin on the moment Titania falls in love with Bottom, after he is “translated” into an ass. Yes, Oberon very much is the Queen of the fairies in this working.
It’s a witty idea, but I am not sure it works. Of course it plays with gusto to our gender fluid, woke, progressive age and there is a lot of comedy in watching Oberon fall for Bottom, played with the right level of bumptious buffoonery by the excellent Hammed Animashaun (below). But we had that without the switch. And of course there’s nothing wrong in giving Titania more of the power in the play. But Hytner makes sound political points without adding much to the drama. And I can’t say he really resolves these basic structural problems in the second half.
Having said that the show is a visual and physical delight. It’s played in immersive style, like the brilliant recent production of Julius Caesar at this same venue, with a seated area round the space, and room for the groundlings to interact and follow the action.
The stages rise up and down, beds upon which fairies sleep or frolic are flown high into the air, and theatregoers have to make way for the players. You feel close to the action, but sometimes you just feel pushed around (yes, I was a groundling) by the staff.
The performances are unerringly excellent though. I loved all four lovers, especially Isis Hainsworth’s impassioned Hermia and Kit Young’s guitar-playing Lysander who manages to beautifully capture some of that character’s self-regard.
As Oberon, Oliver Chris was handed a bit of a dud, forced to be more comic turn than mighty King, but he played his humiliation and redemption with fabulous camp gusto. David Moorst is a very punkish Puck, playing his part with a strong northern accent and add libbing, often about awful Londoners. I can’t say I liked him terribly much, but he raised many a laugh.
Game of Thrones star Gwendoline Christie plays imprisoned Hippolyta with power and dignity, and she relishes her turn as a fabulously mischievous Titania. Only, she isn’t really Titania is she? She is mouthing Oberon’s lines. And that tips this Midsummer Night’s Dream into being something else entirely. Not really the play Shakespeare wrote, and something that will leave many people who love this timeless masterpiece simply confused and slightly frustrated.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream is at The Bridge Theatre, 3 Potter’s Fields Park, London SE1 2SG. Box office: 0333 320 0051. Booking until August 31