FringeReview UK 2019
Directed by Nicholas Hytner, Bunny Christie provides the set with beds, a dream choice of a central green stage and satellite promontories, with slings for gyrating fairies Arlene Philips is movement director. Bruno Poet’s lighting poises highlights from a pristine Athens centre stage to more tenebrous planetary eclipses and halos. Paul Arditti’s sound involves voice-throwing. Grant Olding’s score melds with sampling of pop, and group hug snatches.
Screen director Ross MacGibbon relishes the chance to sharpen the glossy visuals and PR-positioning as well as zoom quietly on intimacy and conflict. We’re also treated to more of the ensemble shouting questions from the wings. As usual, technical producer is Christopher C Bretnall.
Lighting Director Gemma O’Sullivan doesn’t lose the tang of theatre but lets nothing intrude around the stage. Conrad Fletcher’s sound is a discreet envelope, embracing the surround of laughter and applause and entrancing particularly for cinema audiences when the faux Lysander and Demetrius voices scour round 360 degrees. Claire Mathias attended to the script an the slight cuts including one famous speech by Theseus often now omitted.
Nicholas Hytner doesn’t disguise his awe at Peter Brook’s 1970 production, and only the Bridge Theatre’s space liberated him into thinking his own Dream was possible.
A Dream where the speeches of Titania and Oberon are mainly reversed not only re-genders the core conflict of the four couples, but reverses a darkening polarity. We begin with – as happens frequently now – a captive Hippolyta, Game of Thrones Gwendoline Christie looking frostily out of a glass cage as Oliver Chris’s unctuous introductions seek to pacify an Athens out of Gilead and to an extent The Crucible. Head-scarfed women do really seem to be chanting hymns to the fruitless moon, here the vanquished Amazon Hippolyta.
Bunny Christie’s set – green promontory and glass cage, satellite elements in play later – puts Athens under glass. It’s about breaking invisible glass walls if not ceilings, reversing polarities, which has a knock-on effect. This production not only gifts a powerful rationale – no other has followed through an opening severity with such aplomb – but shows how the celebratory outcome can work. When we’re back in Athens after the dream night, Hytner shows how everyone being ‘trans-lated’ redeems the darkness some productions threaten this joyous play with. Mostly that reading starts dark then tries to forget it, or half-heartedly slips into equivocation. Hytner’s found a more convincing way to honour everything.
After a slow processional introduction, Chris delights in a prissily authoritarian Theseus. He’s aided by Kevin McMonagle’s notably bufferish Egeus, hollering through Victorian whiskers. We’re then left with one of those magical portents. Isis Hainsworth’s Hermia initially tongue-tied takes a sudden glance from the glassed-off Hippolyta, and makes bold. It’s one of those details Hytner uses not only to illuminate the text, but to suggest an agency that’s to follow from Hippolyta/Titania, and what’s transformed.
Hainsworth’s enough to bring forth tears. She’s the most affecting, ardent, furious and near-tragic Hermia I’ve ever seen. No-one comes close. Kit Young’s warm and mobile Lysander doesn’t have so rich a part but almost matches Hainsworth in feeling and indeed a quicksilveriness native to the woods they flee to. Paul Adeyefa’s Demetrius seems close to him in alacrity and even temper. Despite inflections – Adeyefa’s rightly prone to curl his lip – they act like brothers. Demetrius has like Proteus from The Two Gentlemen of Verona (and that play’s present here) a nastiness that never entirely evaporates. Unlike Proteus he’s redeemable and Hytner doesn’t dwell on his dark side, even when he proclaims of Lysander ‘I’d rather feed his carcass to my hounds’. Though Hytner concentrates Demetrius’ vicious side in the breaking of the guitar Lysander leaves when he deserts Hermia, and which he’d sung on. Yes, ‘Who is Hermia?’ and later ‘Who is Helena?’ get an outing. The way Hermia hugs its broken parts to her afterwards is heartrending.
Helena’s keener isolation is well taken up by Tessa Bonham Jones, who rightly looms over Hainsworth in a taut but insecure hauteur. She provides a more dissonant vocal range, almost strident down to a voluble whisper. Bonham Jones can’t be so affecting but she projects a quiet desolation, someone scenting abandonment. You wonder in glances if her union with Demetrius will prove as happy. We last see her prone to touching him in now genteel spaniel-like pawings.
Hammed Animashaun’s Bottom is outstanding, apparelled in yellow overalls with Felicity Montague’s churchwarden-ish Quince, Jermaine Freeman’s ultimately affecting Flute (as Thisbe), Ami Metcalf’s huffy Snout, Francis Lovehall’s backing-off Starveling; and Jamie-Rose Monk’s voluble Snug. Not just a lion but a soprano roar when she sings. Elsewhere Jay Webb’s Cobweb, Charlotte Atkinson’s Moth, Lennin Nelson-McClure’s shy Mustardseed and Rachel Totzman’s Bedbug provide some of the most acrobatic gyrations on stirrups seen in Shakespeare.
Animashaun though is commanding, none more so when he encounters his ‘trans-lated’ state – the split word’s delicious: a subtle reanimation of words heard too rarely and which Hytner delights in. His ad-libbing too is all of a piece. It’s not just Bottom’s erotic encounter with Oberon, but in his relation to the Rude Mechanicals (they even have their team tops). Animashaun really does try to snaffle every part, and his dying scene, well it brings the house not so much down as ready to jump on him. By contrast, affectingly, the women do find themselves briefly overwhelmed over Freeman.
It’s now that David Moorst’s Philostrate turns Puck, with a truculent Lancastrian vibe and gleeful chuckle whilst suspended upside down. He ad-libs pushing through the audience (there’s much of this) ‘Londoners’. Though on this night someone quips back ‘I’m Irish’. Like many of the supporting cast, Moorst puts himself through the slings and rings of outrageous set design, and triumphs.
Moorst’s Puck takes time to express glee at things falling out better than (now) Titania could have imagined, and manages a fascinated uh-oh when his mistaken eyelid-streaking comes to light. But isn’t entirely repentant. His relationship with Christie isn’t the frequent threats-and-violence one with Oberon, but quiet dread, a banishment.
Chris and Christie revel in reversed speeches: Christie’s now commanding, voluble, threatening. It’s Chris who’ll not surrender the little boy, though when he declares the mother ‘was a votress of my order’ and ‘gossiped by my side’ you realize not every last detail can fit. But that’s a niggle where everything else does so convincingly.
Chris’ waking to Animashaun’s charms sets that other translation in riotous train, ending up in a shared bubble bath, hilarious and touching. It’s here that details count. Chipo Kureya’s Peaseblossom is visibly flummoxed by Bottom’s advances, and later on Puck plays enough with his potent violets to cause both young couples to brush with a same-sex kiss, something they (or rather the men) blink away later.
It’s this ghosting of events in waking Athens that suggests so brilliantly the three couples undergo lasting transformation. If indeed they’ve slumbered here, they never quite come out of their dream. Patriarchy’s claims are set aside. Egeus is flummoxed.
Christie provides the set with beds, a dream choice of a central green stage flecked with flowers, and satellite promontories, as well as slings for gyrating fairies to fly round like comets: Arlene Philips is movement director. Bruno Poet’s lighting balletically poises highlights from a bleak pristine Athens centre stage to more tenebrous planetary eclipses and haloes. Paul Arditti’s sound involves voice-throwing and a capacity to hush effects as well as start an auditory riot. Grant Olding’s score mainly melds with the famous sampling of pop, memorably ‘I Can See Clearly Now’ and group hug snatches.
Stills from Brook’s production as well as a complete audio serve to remind us of that landmark 1970 production. This surely is the greatest production since then, which though paying it homage enjoys a completely fresh, convincing rationale that will change the way we see this play forever.