Bridge Theatre, London – until 31 August 2019
Don’t leave it to the last minute to get into the auditorium for the Bridge Theatre immersive, promenade production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream because there is stuff going on before the play officially starts.
Gwendoline Christie, a statuesque Amazon Queen, is encased in a glass box in a riff on the idea of a golden cage. She is dressed in a nun-like habit while a choir, similarly attired, sing to her. When the opening ‘marriage or death’ scene plays out, it is austere with the cold and unfeeling Theseus (Oliver Chris) and Egeus (Kevin McMonagle) appearing all the more domineering towards the petite, girlish Hermia (Isis Hainsworth).
Hippolyta places her hand on the glass in a gesture of support towards Hermia. It hints at a twist that is to come, one that sees director Nicholas Hytner not merely gender swapping to redress the balance but swapping a whole storyline. But I’ll come onto that.
The nun costumes are curious – a nod to the status of women in society as essentially servants to male ‘gods’. For a moment it fools you into thinking this is going to be a dark and sinister production of MSND but when the action moves into the forest, the realm of dream and fairies, it is a verdant landscape where the costumes are deep coloured silks and velvet, embellished with flowers and sequins. It does take a while to get to this point but once it does the play literally and figuratively flies.
The four lovers are half-dressed for bed and their wooing and chasing becomes an exercise in bed-hopping. In fact, much of the action takes place on or around beds – this is a dream after all.
It is also a dream where fairies fly, Peaseblossom and friends twisting, turning and performing amazing aerial stunts on ‘swings’ hanging above the stage (another good reason not to spend too long before you return to the auditorium at the interval).
David Moorst who plays Puck apparently learned the aerial work from scratch for the production but you would never know given the skill and confidence with which he performs, suspended high above the stage and audience.
He plays a cheeky, spiky, slightly camp Puck to whom you warm very quickly and here is the powerful twist of the play, he isn’t doing Oberon’s bidding as in Shakespeare’s original text, he is doing Titania’s.
Putting power back in female hands
It’s a delicious modern twist to the play, not only putting some power back into female hands in a play which traditionally treats women badly but adding a different layer of humour.
Oliver Chris’s Oberon and Hammed Animashaun’s donkey-ear wearing Bottom are divinely funny to watch as the ‘odd’ couple, earning whistles and cheers from the audience.
Gwendoline Christie’s Titania has a serenely sly smile.
The ‘rude mechanicals’ wear overalls and present as a motley bunch of am-drammers some with an ‘artistic temperament’ that can lead to scuffles.
There is some brilliantly hammy acting, a great bit of dancing and a nice little nod to Saturday night TV talent shows.
It is a production that ends with an immersive dance and leaves the audience in a party mood but what I liked most was how it steered the narrative away from male dominance.
A nice dream
Hippolyta/Titania’s revenge on Theseus/Oberon might have just been a dream but it was a nice one.
It is currently running at 2 hours and 50 minutes including interval – which does feel a little long, particularly when you are standing.
I’m giving it 4 and a half stars and you can see it at the Bridge Theatre until 31 August.
A note for those thinking about ‘promenade’ tickets
If you haven’t experienced the pit standing tickets before then it is an immerse experience with the staging moving from scene to scene.
Sometimes the actors might be right in front of you, occasionally above you or standing next to you.
You will be ushered around the space as bits of stage rise up out of the floor or pieces of the set are moved through the audience. But this is a good thing because it means your view is constantly changing.
Sometimes you might be close enough to lean on the stage but even if you are a few people back you can generally see what is going on – I’m only five foot 2 and never felt like I couldn’t see.
The dry ice/smoke effect got a bit irritating at one point as I just happened to be where it was accumulating but it is easy to move out of the way.
You might also like to read:
The Bridge Theatre’s last immersive Shakespeare was Julius Caesar which was also a great experience.
This isn’t the first production of MSND I’ve seen Oliver Chris in, he played Bottom and upstaged Dame Judi Dench.
West End review: A star-studded cast but did The Starry Messenger shine?
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