We witnessed the maniacal ravings of a beautifully poetic work
Theatre-goers around the world have been bitterly disappointed as there is nothing we can go to, nothing to review, and nothing to look forward to. Luckily, there are companies such as the National Theatre which have been able to provide us with recordings of their very best past performances to tide us over until we can inch our way back to the stage. However, Nicholas Hytner’s production of Shakespeare’s beloved romantic comedy, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, does not give me the feeling of a plaster on a gaping wound. The play was absolutely delightful, and it felt more like a gift the National Theatre, generously bestowed upon us to lift our spirits in such a miserable time.
Very quickly, Hermia is to marry Demetrius by her father’s approval but she and Lysander wish to marry each other. Helena is in love with Demetrius, who is in love with Hermia (I know…) and uncontrollably pines after him even though Demetrius clearly does not return her affections. Hermia and Lysander venture into the forest as they flee to Athens so that they may marry without Hermia’s father’s approval; Demetrius follows Hermia into the woods; Helena follows Demetrius into the woods. Little do they know that they have entered the realm Oberon and Titania, the fairy king and queen, who are currently at odds with each other, and a band of Athenian craftsmen who are rehearsing Pyramus and Thisbe, the most hilarious of the lot being Bottom. Titania calls upon the dishonest fairy, Puck, to make Oberon fall in love with Bottom (whose head Puck took the liberty to turn into that of an ass). Titania also puts Puck up to making Demetrius fall in love with Helena after seeing how cruelly he jilts her, except Puck mistakes Lysander for Demetrius, who then falls in love with Helena. Naturally, chaos is the modus operandi of the majority of the play.
Traditionally, Titania is the one who falls in love with Bottom, but I appreciate this swap to Oberon as Gwendoline Christie (Titania) holds too much of a regal demeanour to be lead into the arms of an ass, whereas Oliver Chris’s performance as Oberon was so ludicrous, it was impossible to imagine such a cast following the original plot. But underneath it all, the comedic geniuses that tied the three subplots together were David Moorst (Puck) and Hammed Animashaun (Bottom); every other line was absolute gold, and at points, standing completely still with a vacant stare was enough to make the audience burst into laughter both on stage and at home. The acting in this is immaculate, and I cannot find any fault with it.
One of the most poignant elements of the production was the modernisation of the play. A very valid criticism often directed at more traditional performances of Shakespearean plays is that it can be hard differentiating between characters and their respective statuses (between king and craftsman, for example) as historically faithful costumes no longer convey the same information to an audience that came across centuries ago. This is just one example of how antiquatedly faithful productions can be so faithful to historical accuracy, that the intended effect does not come across. Fortunately, the immensely talented Bunny Christie (production design) and Paul Arditti (sound design) saved this production from this long-standing problem, which interestingly incorporated the audience into the performance.
Beyoncé music blared out as Oberon and Bottom went to bed together; Puck slagged off the rudeness of Londoners as he ordered them to move out of his way; Pyramus and Thisbe was finally performed with interpretative dance, flashlights, and a toy puppy. These allusions to a contemporary culture actually enriched the play, as it further immersed us in an ambiguous time and place, a dreamlike world (made clear by the set being made up of beds) in which anything goes, but you don’t really know what’s going on at the same time. I think the beautiful language of Shakespeare combined with a more modern aesthetic and humour is just what was needed to keep the comedy (and the romance) vibrant and exciting.
It was a pleasure to watch, and I will continue to seeth with envy at those who saw it live (even the groundlings!).
A Midsummer’s Night Dream was streamed by The National Theatre from 25th June – 2nd July.