Writer: William Shakespeare
Director: Nicholas Hytner
How does a show designed to be immersive fare onscreen? Fairly well it seems, and it is testament to the skills of the National Theatre Live team that it does. Filmed at the Bridge Theatre in 2019, this production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream is the latest to grace the digital National Theatre at Home stage and the first of the weekly showings to have been originally conceived and performed as an immersive experience.
Tis the season for productions of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and in any other June at least three versions would be running concurrently. There is room, then, for a little experimentation and Nicholas Hytner’s acclaimed production not only employs a generous sprinkling of gender-blind casting but entirely re-orientates the story by substituting Oberon’s role for Titania’s, reversing this dubious wife-drugging pixie plot to amplify the magical comedy and conjure a more modern tale of sexual fluidity and female strength.
Bunny Christie’s design translates well to screen, opening with the austere severity of Theseus’ kingdom, a Handmaid’s Tale-inspired vision of female enslavement in which the captured Hippolyta first appears in a glass cage. This is contrasted with the spectacle of the cabaret-like fairy forest and the playschool primary colours of the boiler-suited mechanicals. Beds increasingly feature in the unfolding design to emphasise the dream aspects first for the escaping lovers and later enmeshed with vines in a beautiful obstacle course of intertwined fantasy locations.
Purists look away because Hytner’s decision to make Oberon fall in love with Bottom is the centrepiece of this production and it adds much needed fire to a well-worn story. Oliver Chris as the Fairy King and Hammed Animashaun as his ass-headed lover are an absolute joy, combining Shakespeare’s lines with brilliantly timed physical comedy and some well-chosen musical additions. These two scenes have rarely been funnier, and its overt silliness resonates so beautifully with the audience in the room and at home
The Mechanicals too are a given particular focus, so while the play within a play usually extends the show long after its magical entanglements are resolved, here the re-gendered characters are a vivid highlight adding personality that finds further humour in Shakespeare’s lines. Felicity Montagu, Jermaine Freeman, Ami Metcalf and Jamie-Rose Monk along with Animashaun, who takes every opportunity to steal the show, have a great time as an over enthusiastic and slightly gawky troupe of amateur players.
The Lovers, so usually the focus, are relegated here and their presence is largely forgettable apart from Kit Young’s Lysander who speaks the verse with lyricism and seems most in tune with Hytner’s comic tone. The fairies, headed by David Moorst’s Puck, have acrobatic flair and are led by Gwendolen Christie’s warrior-like but mischievous Titania, who amply assumes the commanding role in Oberon’s stead.
The skilful NT Live team get close to the action and the screening only just misses the magical atmosphere of the room, with its vast athletic spectacle of gymnastic fairies suspended in mid-air on ropes while blocks rise and fall within the stage floor. We have now just passed midsummer and the nights will start to draw in again, but a lingering hope remains that theatres will soon return and productions as good as this will be dreamt of again.
Available here until 2 July 2020