This week, The National Theatre is streaming Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” produced in 2019 by the Bridge Theatre in England. This is a smart and novel approach to this wonderful, comic fantasy. The directors, Nicholas Hytner and Ross MacGibbon, present a modernized version which includes music from Johnny Nash, Beyonce, and other current artists. Christina Cunningham’s costume design is innovative with contemporary men’s suits and ties for the Athenians and Puck’s outfit more like one of the Sex Pistols than a sprite. Puck (David Moorst) and the fairies’ choreography is more reflective of Cirque de Soleil than an Elizabethan acting troupe.
I should say that I prefer my Shakespeare more traditional, especially the this comedic favorite of Shakespeare fans for centuries. The directors, for reasons I could not fathom, switched much of the dialogue of Oberon, King of the Fairies (Oliver Chris) with that of Titania, Queen of the Fairies (Gwendoline Christie). In this production, it is Oberon who is given the potion to make him fall in love with Bottom (Hammed Animashaun) after he is turned into an a*s. I also think the mischief that Puck does to the young pair of lovers, which includes having the two males and the two females briefly fall in love with each other, veers a little too much from the Bard’s plot line. I don’t object to playing with genders and sexuality, I just felt that the scenes between Bottom and the Fairy King lacked the sensuality and humor when compared to the original. The two pairs of lovers never truly show a physical attraction for each other. They shouldn’t be just youthful, but lusty lovers. Both Hermia (Isis Hainsworth) and Helena (Tessa Bonham Jones) should be strong young women, but both seem very naïve and, at times, dowdy.
The acrobatics used in the staging of Puck and the fairies is at times distracting, and the opening of Act II which featured only the acrobatics seems to be totally detached from the play and did not seem to serve a purpose.
…some fine acting and a new look at a classic…
On the other hand, I like the audience interaction with the performers, from borrowing an audience member’s cell phone to check a calendar to Puck’s pushing aside people as he slithers through the spectators. The play is performed in the round with two platforms, so the mingling with the audience seems right. I am not sure about the gimmick that has half the audience standing, but then, this was performed live. Devices that might not work on screen might be much more affective in person. The use of modern music, since the play is set in more contemporary times, along with the updated costuming, seems to fit, notably during the wedding scene at the end.
There are also some standout performances. Animashaun makes a wonderful Bottom. He is the perfect buffoon. I appreciate that the troupe dresses in similar coveralls in Act I, and then all are wearing the same sweatshirt for the play within the play. The latter scene is hysterically funny due to the fine acting of Felicity Montagu as Quince, Jermaine Freeman as Flute, Ami Metcalf as Snout, Jamie-Rose Monk as Snug, and Francis Lovehall as Starveling. The Thisbe-Pyramus play is well worth watching and one of the best I have seen.
Moorst makes a devilish Puck. He also deftly performs acrobatics hanging from ropes, swings, and hammocks suspended from the rafters.
The other principles include, Paul Adeyefa as Demetrius and Kit Young as Lysander. Along with Hainsworth and Jones, they give very entertaining performances. Kevin McMonagle ably plays the supporting role of Egeus.
Chipo Kureya portrays a very sexy fairy, Peaseblossom. Jay Webb, Charlotte Atkinson, Lennin Nelson-McClure, and Rachel Tolzman round out the sprites.
The production design by Bunny Christie is creative and imaginative. Christie flies in beds, bathtubs, and, of course, the acrobatic equipment for Puck and the fairies. The lighting design by Bruno Poet helps create the fantasy as he illuminates not just the two platforms but the audience. At the end it has the feel of a wonderful, midsummer sky.
If you love a more traditional presentation, you might not enjoy this version of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” However, if you want to see some fine acting and a new look at a classic, catch this on YouTube until July 2 at 2 p.m. EST.
Running Time: Two hours and 38 minutes with a brief intermission.