In response to the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, theatre companies have brought their lovable productions to an online format. From ‘National Theatre at Home’, BBC’s ‘Culture in Quarantine’ and The Royal Opera House’s ‘Our House to Your House’, there are certainly a lot of opportunities for avid theatregoers to enjoy theatre from the comfort of their own home. Bridge Theatre’s ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ is no exception, bringing the magic and fantasy of Shakespeare’s comedy to quarantined households. Having seen this production in September there are elements of the live show that are lost in the screening. However, this by no means compromises entertainment value.
Nicholas Hytner’s production drags Shakespeare kicking and screaming into the modern age – and it works. With same-sex kisses, aerial acrobatics, and a reversal in the roles of Titania and Oberon, the audience were left with feelings of empowerment and warmth. Instead of Oberon and Puck machinating against Titania, it was reversed to have the Queen of the Fairies, played by the lovable Gwendoline Christie, and her assistant Puck, played by David Moorst, perform their various tricks on Oberon. Whilst at points the dialogue-switch seemed glaringly apparent, the change in dynamic did, actually, only enhance the humour, particularly with the same-sex attraction of Oliver Chris’ Oberon and Hammed Animashaun’s Bottom. This was delivered with such humour, most notably when they sat in a bathtub together with champagne glasses. What’s more, Hytner’s careful handling of Shakespeare’s dialogue, with notable additions such as ‘LOL’ and ‘Jog on’, left the audience in stitches. Combined with musical interludes from Jimmy Cliff’s ‘I Can See Clearly Now’ to Beyoncé’s ‘Love On Top’, Shakespeare has never looked fresher. With innovative creativity, dialogue-switches, colloquialisms and modern music – Shakespeare is more relevant now than ever.
There were, of course, elements of the screening that were lost from when I saw it live in September. As an immersive piece of theatre, there were many humorous moments of audience interaction, particularly between Moorst’s Puck, that simply were not as engaging when seen on screen. Having said that, this version did have a particularly witty encounter with an audience member resulting in a high five from Puck – I will not spoil it but, needless to say, it was immensely funny. However, there were times when I found myself yelling at the screen to move the camera because I felt there were some lovely moments that were missed. Of course, there are benefits to screenings, such as viewers being able to get an intricate look into actors’ facial expressions, notably Christie and her interaction with Chris. But there were times when the camera focused too much on the main actors, and not enough on the incredible performance of the aerial acrobats. At the end of the first half the camera focused on Oberon and Bottom, all the while missing the various acrobatic stunts, something I particularly enjoyed watching in the live show.
Nevertheless, the magical fantasy of the piece was still conveyed in the screening. With gorgeous costume designs by Christina Cunningham, most notably in the dazzling green dress adorned by Christie and the glittery black fairy outfits, the audience were truly immersed into Shakespeare’s fairy land. I particularly enjoyed Hytner’s decision to cast Christie as both Titania and Hippolyta, and Chris as both Oberon and Theseus. This allowed for a grand unveiling when Christie took off her dark garment to reveal a green dress, and Theseus’ transforming into Oberon by a change to a dark green jacket. With dramatic clamours of music, it was clear the audience had been taken out of the mortal world, and into the world of the fairies. Just so when removed from the magical realm, the deep music and shift from a dazzling spectacle of rainbow lighting gels to a gloomier light marked the shift of Titania and Oberon back to Hippolyta and Theseus. Perfectly combining the immortal with the mortal, the sensational with the stupid, from Bruno Poet’s spectacular lighting design and fantastic acrobatics to the hilariously poor play-within-a-play delivered by the Rude Mechanicals, you would have to be a very serious person indeed not to find this production utterly hilarious.
Notable performances include David Moorst’s wonderful rendition of Puck, combining the hyper with the sarcastic, the sassy with the sulky, all culminating in his extremely impressive acrobatic work, giving off the illusion of magic and flight. There were, perhaps, elements of his performance lost in the screening, but his performance did, nonetheless, still convey his comedic awareness and excellent bodily movement. The relationship between Christie’s Titania and Moorst’s Puck was equally delightful, most notably when Christie dangled from aerial silk and squealed girlishly at Puck’s tricks. Christie excellently combined Titania’s femininity with her power, emphasised all the more by the switch in dialogue between her and Oberon. I particularly enjoyed the wonderful reunion between the fairy King and Queen, where Christie gave off her distinct and infectious laugh which brought the audience in on her magical charm. From the four lovers Helena, Hermia, Demetrius and Lysander, I must say that Tessa Bonham Jones’ Helena was, for me, the standout performance amongst them. From her melodramatic (and borderline creepy) declarations of unrequited love for Demetrius, to her screams into a pillow, the audience could not help but love her unsuccessful attempts at winning the affections of her lover.
All in all I was thoroughly impressed by the way Hytner’s innovative ideas brought ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ into the 21st century. With spectacles and acrobatics reminiscent of Cirque du Soleil, this performance will, absolutely, make you see Shakespeare in a different light. Whilst the screening is certainly not as spectacular as the live show, this comes at a close second. Need to have your spirits lifted after spending three months stuck in quarantine? Why not stick on ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ for 150 minutes of pure, unadulterated joy.
‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ will continue to screen on YouTube until 7pm on Thursday 2nd July.
By Josh Goodwin
Photography by Perou & design by Muse for The Bridge Theatre.