Having heard nothing but good things about the Bridge Theatre’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, showing as part of the NT At Home weekly programme, I felt a surge of anticipation as I sat down to watch. Well, darn me if I’m not going to come right out and say it – I didn’t care for it! Having spent the first three days this week watching and reviewing what I called my “Shakespeare Offshoot” trilogy – three Bard related rather than Bard penned plays – I thought it was high time I got back to an actual Shakespeare original. The trouble is that it wasn’t. The original, that is. Granted all the characters are present and correct and the general arc of the narrative is the same as Shakespeare conceived but within this immersive production there is simply too much monkeying about with two major characters and the text in general to call it anything other than an adaptation.
Firstly, and most obviously the vast majority of the words usually spoken by Titania are delivered by Oberon and vice versa. Although I could readily see the point director Nick Hytner is making about patriarchal society it skews the play too far away from what had been written/intended for it still to be called Shakespeare. While the reversal allows Titania/Hippolyta the ability to guide the sexual politics of the play it also takes from her one of the greatest speeches when she describes the effects on the human natural world that the couple’s quarrelling causes; this was a pity as I anticipated Gwendolen Christie would have delivered a very good rendition and removing it from her did the piece a disservice. By all means subvert gender and racial stereotypes through open casting but when you begin to radically alter the nature of the characters (and what can be more fundamental than wholesale reassigning of the text?) then you are moving the play into a different sphere altogether. I think a writer who was still alive and saw their text being treated in such a cavalier fashion just might have something to say about it.
Secondly, and probably the thing I really objected to, was the persistent use of lazy modern colloquialisms (if that’s the right phrase) interjected into the text. This to me was simply pandering to the audience in order to get a cheap laugh as they were juxtaposed to the poetry of the real text. Sure enough the ruse worked but played properly it’s not as if Shakespeare needs that sort of help. Even more annoying than that is the constant referencing from modern populist culture. “Oo’s e? Simba?” asks Snug when Bottom tries to appropriate his part as the Lion and the whole of the start seems to be borrowed directly from the TV adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale. Does all this help to bring the text to life for a modern audience or does it simply turn the play into something it was never intended to be? Discuss.
In fact as I carried on watching I began to be acutely aware that there was an awful lot of “borrowing” going on from the Dream tradition itself; there seemed to be particularly rich pickings from three productions on show during 2016. The general subversiveness of the approach is very similar to Emma Rice’s Globe Theatre take, the gay disco sequences smacks of The Donkey Show: A Midsummer Night’s Disco and the opening scene is straight out of Russell T. Davies’ TV version that same year which features a similarly repressive patriarchal society led by a right wing autocratic Theseus who imprisons HIppolyta. Any number of productions have doubled up the Duke and Duchess with Oberon and Titania so nothing new there (except the already mentioned dialogue change). I’ve seen any number of Pucks channelling the moods of a teenage adolescent so encountering another was simply tedious. Perhaps most telling of all are the references to/steals from the incomparable Peter Brook version of 1970 which also featured airborne gymnastic fairies. In all it is a rather mix and match approach of “greatest hits” from the past by Hytner. Reverential homage or lazy (if knowledgeable) directing? Again, discuss.
I also found the acting rather uneven. There is no doubting the big hearted appeal of Hammed Animashaun’s Bottom and his connection with the audience as he borrows a mobile phone found me temporarily relaxing my feelings about the interpolations – even I could see that this was a moment. Oliver Chris’s wily Theseus and stern Oberon fall away as a drugged dopey eyed version takes over – again to good comic effect. I found Gwendolen Christie’s interpretations of Hippolyta and Titania to be a bit too similar (yes, I do know that in this production they are essentially the same person); I think it was the tendency she had to keep throwing her long arms into the air, but she was certainly an imposing presence. The lovers I found really bland and unmemorable while the entire Mechanicals team bring energy and pace to what they were doing. Ami Metcalf as Snout/The Wall is particularly good value and put me in mind of a young Maxine Peake.
Just in the cause of being balanced let me say that there were some elements that surprised me in a positive way. I enjoyed the inspired sight of Oberon and Bottom sharing a bubble bath and thought the second prologue sequence of “Pyramus and Thisbe” where the Mechanicals perform a deftly worked and beautifully ridiculous dance mime (hats off to Arlene Phillips) really lifts the piece. In general the play within a play is well done and certainly contains the best in joke (though not Shakespeare joke) of the night when Bottom explains that it is all meant to be immersive. But these are small recompense for the general annoyance and sense of acute disappointment I found myself feeling throughout the rest of the production.
Just because it’s this time of year, online theatre watchers are spoiled for choice with Dream productions at the moment. There are two available from the Globe Theatre alone. If you prefer things more traditional you’ll probably appreciate their 2013 version directed by Dominic Dromgoole and if you want something even more way out and liberty taking you’ll go for the 2106 iteration as directed by Emma Rice (click here for review). Russell T Davis’s 2016 TV film account clocks in at just 90 minutes and even quicker and a suitable introduction for youngsters is a version from CBeebies. Interestingly these last two are identified as “adaptations”, the Bridge Theatre, if it was being honest, really should have used the same identifier.
Production photos by Manuel Harlan
A Midsummer Night’s Dream is available on NT At Home’s You Tube channel until July 2nd. Click here
The Globe’s two versions are here (2013) and here (2016). The Russell T. Davies TV film is here and the CBeeebies adaptation is here
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