Yesterday afternoon I went to see the much anticipated A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Bridge theatre under the direction of Sir Nicholas Hytner. Having staged a legendary promenade Julius Caesar when the Bridge opened, he reassembled a similar creative team to put on this dream-filled comic play. However, unlike the inventive and brilliant Julius Caesar, this production fell rather flat for me.
To start with some positives though, the set design was brilliant, and it was thoroughly well produced. Bunny Christie’s design of beds, rising and falling in perfect tandem when necessary, along with the swings and trapezes, was inventive and never failed to please. Likewise, with all the set in constant motion, and the added difficulty of a whole mass of people to control, the stage managers and the production team did a fantastic job at ensuring the play kept its pace. There was also quite diverse casting. Age wise we had the range of Patridge’s PA Felicity Montagu to clearly fresh-faced recent drama-school graduates, a full range of sizes, and some racial diversity also. There was still no Asian presence on stage (we only make up over half the world’s population but you know…) and as Natasha Tripney astutely points out in her review for The Stage, there is a “class dynamic at play that feels under-interrogated”. It was progress from Julius Caesar, and half the main characters were POCs, so I’m not complaining, but there was still more to be done. Finally, though it is hardly Hytner’s idea and recalls the Peter Brook production now nearly half a century ago, the trapeze acrobatics never fail to impress.
But on to the problems. The play begins incredibly strangely. Before the play has started, a choir comes in, dressed in Margaret Atwood-esque religiously restrictive clothing, singing depressing psalms. I say depressing not just because they weren’t exactly jolly psalms, but also because holding key seemed quite the task for these actors. I’m not quite sure what the rehearsal music director managed to get out of them, but by the end they were two tones flat and did not correct when the music came in, instead descending into atonal anarchy. (A bit harsh I know but out of tune psalm singing really gets my goat). Then the famed Gwendoline Christie was dragged on stage in a Perspex box, dressed in what may have been the only nice costume of the whole production, and the play began. This was clearly some comment on the restricted and backwards nature of Athenian society, particularly towards women as we hear of Hermia’s potential death if she does not bend to her father’s will. I of course do not disagree with making clear social commentary, but really it just confused the tone. It also did not appear again during the play which for me made it feel rather tokenistic. We quickly descended into comedy as Bottom makes his brilliant entrance, and the comic tone of the play settles, these first ten minutes quickly becoming irrelevant. They did still leave me with the wrong taste however, and it took me quite a while to settle into the quick change of tone.
We then see all the lovers, with these four young actors playing their parts well, but rather unimaginatively. Kit Young, playing Lysander, didn’t really appeal to me very much. He overacted for humour, with weird thumbs up trying to get cheap laughs from the audience. Most annoyingly however, he seemed to struggle with convincingly speaking in iambic pentameter. His speech did not flow, unlike everyone else in the play to their credit, and instead some of his speeches sounded like he momentarily became a witch from Macbeth. Really the little quartet of lovers didn’t have much at fault – they were just rather forgettable.
The biggest thing that bugs me to no end about this production is its supposed ‘gender-juggling’ and ‘sexual liberation’. I am absolutely baffled why some critics have found this production in any way innovative when it comes to gender or sexuality. Oberon falls in love with the ass instead of Titania, which is the only role reversal in the play, but that is hardly a shock as every production of Shakespeare nowadays seems to require some role or gender reversal. And as Michael Billington points out, ‘[t]he great speech in which the fairy queen laments the death of her votaress sounds odd coming from a man’. It didn’t do much and all it meant was that Gwendoline Christie had to shine in a much more limited role, leaving her struggling to explore the more comic side of her part and again overacting to create more drama. But worse, and for some reason I still cannot even begin to fathom, in the middle of fighting the two women and men fell into casually snogging for a few moments. Why? I just have to ask why. The intense passion of the moment? The fierce sexual repression of Athens which means they are in fact all bi? To some people they be valid reasons, but to me it just seems like a cheap and lazy way to try make the play more sexually interesting. In fact it seemed to me ingenuine, and worse, perhaps it was just for a laugh? Tripney argues that we are not ‘simply being invited to laugh at a man making moon-eyes at another man’ but I have to disagree. The audience laughed harder simply because it was a homosexual act, and even if that was not Hytner’s aim, the actors saw it as a moment of potential comedy and played it for a laugh. Therefore, it did not seem some challenge to the sexual repression of Athens, but a cheap and almost homophobic way to get a laugh. “Oh how funny two men kissing” – it just is tiring and made me rather uncomfortable. If this is what is considered as ‘gender-juggling’ and sexually liberated in 2019, I fear for the future of theatre.
There was some very good acting (to relieve the negative tone for a moment). Hammed Animashaun was just absolutely hilarious as Bottom, laugh-out-loud shrieking with laughter funny. The whole scene of the acting troupe after the marriage was just hilarious and had the whole theatre in rapturous laughter. Oberon was also very funny, taking to the love-spell cast lover with great fervour. People have adored David Moorst’s Puck, very ably giving lines while hanging upside down. His interpretation of Puck was clearly very anarchical and almost malevolent, instead of a childlike and innocently evil interpretation. I, however, thought it was a bit tonally confusing and was rather bothered by his affections, with the twitching and weird movement seeming more intense than was perhaps necessary. I will concede though that it was a solid performance.
Finally I shall complain about Christina Chunnigham’s costumes, because, with all due respect, what on earth was that?! As a costume designer who has assisted on this very play before, I was baffled by her choices. The dress of Titania, which should sparkle with a kind of unreal perfection befitting a fairy queen, was instead a hideous green monstrosity. With pleats too wide; ridiculous embroidering on the left bosom that fell into these weird flower strands that draped down; a very visible zip that may be necessary given the final quick change but should certainly be better hidden – it was a badly-fitted monstrosity. The Handsmaid’s Tale inspired costumes at the beginning were fine but then everything descended into a just a mess of everything. Perhaps she was trying to make the whole thing seem more like a dream vision by packing in as many different styles as possible, but to me it just seemed like someone had dragged the actors through a thrift store and they caught whatever they could fine. Puck was in 70s patched denim; one of the dancers was wearing what looked like holographic leggings only appropriate to be worn in Heaven maybe three years ago; the acting troupe were in weird purple jumpers which looked like they were ordered by a ‘customise your won jumper’ website you find on google for your school leaver’s part – it was just tonally confused and an absolute mess. Even the wedding dresses by Giles Deacon, one in apricot embroidered with flowers and one blue layered ruffles, were disappointing. Sir Nick if you want a new costume designer, I’m just saying… I’m here and I’ll work for 1/10th of the price.
At the end of the day however, after all this complaining, the audience clearly liked it. People were laughing and they came out happy. The people who promenaded (though don’t get me started on how absolutely pointless having a promenade for this performance was) were all clearly enthralled by it all. And the Bridge is accessible: £7.50 rush tickets, standing tickets, daily tickets, student tickets. Theatre is made accessible in a way that it simply must be to keep it alive. If there’s a performance that’s getting people hyped about Shakespeare, and convinces a bored 8 year-old to look up and laugh, I cannot help but be pleased by it. So, basically, most of what I said is irrelevant if it gets people to the theatre!!
“Oh why rebuke you him that loves you so? / Lay breath so bitter on your bitter foe.” – William Shakespeare