Nicholas Hytner was the artistic director of the National Theatre back in 2009 when the venerable British institution rolled out National Theatre Live -- live, or nearly live, worldwide cinema broadcasts of their plays. It was wildly successful.
When Hytner left the National, he co-founded London Theatre Company, housed at Bridge Theatre. NT Live had expanded to broadcast productions of affiliate theatres -- including Bridge Theatre.
The original Bridge Theatre production ran from June 3 to August 31, 2019 with the original cinema broadcast debuting on October 17, 2019. It played for free on YouTube from June 25 to July 2, 2020 -- during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. It now frequently appears on their National Theatre At Home streaming service.
In many ways this version of Shakespeare’s Dream is a follow-up to Hytner’s acclaimed 2018 production of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. The previous year’s production featured a thrust stage, where much of the audience stood around the stage – London playgoers stood in for the mob of ancient Rome.
Hytner’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream was performed in the Round, again with standing audiences swarming around the bits of raised stage.
It’s a setup that truly tests the nature of cinema broadcasts of theatre. Even the most realistic stage productions are at their heart – non-naturalistic. Theatre audiences enter the world of the play and willingly suspend their disbelief, ignoring the proscenium arches, partial sets and all other devices that remind them that what they are seeing is merely a show. On the other hand, movies are generally a naturalistic medium – even superhero and science fiction films with their colourful costumes and laser beams.
This production immerses the audience in moving pieces of stage, often with bed-like themes, moving around. It's evocative even watching it from the movie theatre or the home screen.
The characters themselves acknowledge the bizarre set-up during the Mechanicals' play of Pyramus and Thisbe. Theseus explains "it's interactive."
The play's setting of Athens has been re-interpreted many ways. In this production, director Nicholas Hytner drew inspiration from The Handmaid's Tale, the popular TV series based on the dystopian novel by Margaret Atwood. It's a repressive religious society, ruled by men where women are held as a virtual slave class. It doesn't take much to push Shakespeare's repressive Athens in so dark a direction.
Gwendoline Christie's Hippolyta is sealed in a glass cage, mainly communicating through worried looks or touching the glass. When she does speak the romantic lines of the text, it feels like a hostage video. She conveys much with so few words.
Oliver Chris is truly a standout as Theseus. He plays these moments with that combination of sexual repression and smugness that typifies men in such positions of power. He's worse than any mere mansplainer, although that is among Theseus's sins.
We certainly see why Hermia and Lysander would want to fly from such a place.
From her bed, Hippolyta watches as the Athenian lovers rise from their own beds and leave Athens. Or is it Hippolyta? She draws the courtier Philostrate near and pulls off his jacket revealing Puck. David Moorst follows the punk tradition with his Puck. His trickster has a dangerous energy about him. He adds a line to Shakespeare's text calling out "Hey, fairy!" before the Shakespearean "How now, spirit?"
It's not the only change to Shakespeare's text. The Fairy has changed her allegiance.
I do wander everywhere,
Swifter than the moon’s sphere.
And I serve the Fairy Queen,
To dew her orbs upon the green.
2019 Bridge Theatre Production
I do wander everywhere,
Swifter than the moon’s sphere.
And I serve the Fairy King,
To dew his orbs with nimble wing.
Puck has also changed sides, as he tells the Fairy that he serves Titania and makes her smile. The Fairy and Puck reach down to Theseus and Hippolyta and pull off their bedclothes to reveal Oberon and Titania.
Their dialogue begins as it does in Shakespeare's text. But after Titania declares "These are the forgeries of jealousy," suddenly it is Oliver Chris's Oberon who speaks Titania's traditional lines. The Fairy King and Queen have swapped roles in this production.
This change is most effective when Chris recalls the mother of the Changeling boy. There's a sense of loss and tenderness that is far removed from how Chris plays Theseus in this production.
But even though Nicholas Hytner makes a radical change to Shakespeare's text, he also pays tribute to the theatrical tradition. Puck and other fairies hang from bed sheet trapezes in a deliberate homage to Peter Brook's groundbreaking 1970 production of A Midsummer Night's Dream.
As with his use of The Handmaid's Tale, Hytner is open and honest about his influences. This Dream mixes borrowed pieces into something new and fresh.
Hytner does sweeten Shakespeare with fresh and modern interjections. Perhaps the most notable example of this is when Bottom, Quince and the other mechanicals are rehearsing their play. They need a calendar and go in search of an audience member's mobile phone. Bottom quickly returns to the audience member. "Unlock your calendar, I beseech you!" And then the mechnicals are shocked by the photos they find on the phone. Before returning the phone to the audience, Bottom declares "Portrait!" and the gang take a selfie.
This production swaps the gender of some of the mechanicals, most notably Felicity Montagu as an almost schoolmarm version of Quince. All are a comic delight, particularly Hammed Animashaun's Bottom.
One side effect of swapping the parts of Oberon and Titania is that Bottom is now in a gay relationship with a fairy monarch.
It's not all that unusual for productions of A Midsummer Night's Dream to play with gender and sexuality, and Hytner takes full advantage of this tradition. There is sexual tension between Demetrius and Lysander, and Helena and Hermia too -- brought to the surface thanks to some fairy magic.
Kit Young, Paul Adeyefa and Tessa Bonham Jones are all excellent in their roles. But as seems to be the custom, one Athenian dominates the quartet -- usually one of the women. In this case it's Isis Hainsworth as Hermia who comes to the fore with her comic anger in the lovers' quarrel.
You might be wondering if it would truly be a happy ending if the Athenian lovers return to the oppressive society we saw at the beginning of the production. Would the uptight and outright evil Theseus really accept the lovers' decision? Things look grim.
But then, suddenly he remembers. Theseus remembers his experiences as Oberon -- as an image of Bottom and the fairy bedchamber floats above him. The harsh duke softens. He relents and submits to Hippolyta.
A lot of modern productions have had to grapple with the sexual politics of Shakespeare's play. In this case, Hytner does not merely flip the perpetrator of the magical roofie from male to female. He uses the actors' doubling to great effect. This Theseus needs to change, needs to be taught a lesson. And so, he is.
It might seem a gimmick to swap out the roles of Titania and Oberon, but Nicholas Hytner makes great use of this change, backed up by a superb cast.
This production goes from dark and unsettling to outrageously funny. There is joy and celebration in scenes, such as in the final dance.
Doubling up parts has long been part of the stage tradition of A Midsummer Night's Dream but I haven't seen it done as effectively as it is done here.
2021: A Midsummer Night's Dream (Stratford Festival / StratFest@Home), directed by Peter Pasyk with Trish Lindström as Puck
1935: A Midsummer Night's Dream, directed by Max Reinhardt and William Dieterle with Mickey Rooney as Puck
1968: A Midsummer Night's Dream, directed by Peter Hall with Ian Holm as Puck
1981: The BBC Television Shakespeare: A Midsummer Night's Dream, directed by Elijah Moshinsky with Phl Daniels as Puck
1996: A Midsummer Night's Dream, directed by Adrian Noble with Barry Lynch as Puck
1999: William Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, directed by Michael Hoffman with Stanley Tucci as Puck
2005: ShakespeaRe-Told: A Midsummer Night's Dream, written by Peter Bowker and directed by Ed Fraiman with Dean Lennox Kelly as Puck
2016: A Midsummer Night's Dream, adapted by Russell T. Davies and directed David Kerr with Hiran Abeysekera as Puck
2017: A Midsummer Night's Dream, written and directed by Casey Wilder Mott with Avan Jogia as Puck
2013: A Midsummer Night's Dream (Shakespeare's Globe), directed by Dominic Dromgoole with Matthew Tennyson as Puck
2014: Julie Taymor's A Midsummer Night's Dream, directed by Julie Taymor with Kathryn Hunter as Puck
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