Bridge Theatre, London – until 31 August 2019
This is a dream of a Dream. One expected fun from the combination of Nicholas Hytner, a roiling mass of promenaders in the pit and a Bunny Christie design which makes the most of this fresh big theatre’s technical tricks. Indeed there is nothing rude about the Bridge’s mechanicals: beds fly and travel, pits open, platforms appear, gymnastic fairies somersault overhead on six sets of aerial silks, and David Moorst’s nicely yobbish-adolescent Puck has one very “Wow!” exit move.
But what elevates it to realms of unexpected glee is that the director has done two key things. He pursues, as most modern interpreters do, the sense that the forest world, the “fierce vexation of a dream”, releases the humanity of people trapped in the formal stiffness of the court. That psychological captivity includes Duke Theseus himself and his unwilling bride Hippolyta the Amazon.
This sense is beautifully evoked, as the dreamworld’s brass bedsteads develop a thicket of leaves and flowers and the four young lovers leap and romp between them and finally, sweetly, awake confused, four in a bed which was once a grassy bank, looking up with real foreboding at stern Theseus in hunting-gear, wakened from his Oberon dream.
But it’s the other thing that had us whooping, even up in the gallery (I chickened out of the pit this time: I was fine in Caesar at 100 minutes, went twice, but a full length promenade would tax my bad knee). The big fun is that Hytner decided to “reassign” some 300 key lines, so that it is not Titania who is conned and bewitched in their quarrel over a changeling child. It is Oberon. This is no commonplace modish gender-switch (though obviously the fairies and Mechanicals are mixed-gender, with a glorious Ami Metcalf as a sullen Snout and Felicity Montagu as Mrs Quince, everyone’s anxiously mumsy am-dram director).
Making Oberon the patsy, enamoured of an ass, is not only raunchier and funnier today than the original but a fine blow for female dignity (Gwendoline Christie is queenly and wise throughout, her kindness to the young lovers endearing). Oliver Chris, on the other hand, gives the comic performance of a lifetime. He wakes to the spectacle of big looming Hammed Animashaun in yellow boilersuit and asses’ ears with panting cries of erotic delight. The king then embarks on a wild twerking stripping dance on one of the flying beds, to emerge at a key point later in nothing but a froth-thong and soppy adoring smile. Animashaun plays up to this – indeed to everything Bottom does: the immortal Weaver is, in any situation, a miracle of happy self-flattery.
The flying fairies are gorgeously sparkly and mischievous, and Arlene Phillips’ movement is stunning, asking a lot of the young lovers. I sneakily bought a ticket at an early preview because I am on holiday, so was prepared to refrain from star-mousing it and accept glitches. But not a single thing went wrong.
And there is an unexpected edge created by this cheerful role-reversal of the fairy king and queen. It clarifies the moment when Theseus, awake and back in Ducal dignity the morning after , decides to accept the young couples’ decisions and becomes in this concession a humbler lover for Hippolyta. I always wondered why: here we know. It’s because an echo of his ass-adoring discomfiture plays back in his mind. There’s a quizzical look from his bride, who like a Beatrice to his Benedick has won. Theseus is humanized. Thus, bingo! the reversal serves both the silliness and the solemnities of the play.
Box office: 0843-208 1846. to 31 August
And here is the rare Stage Management Mouse. It was right to include them in the curtain call…