Stefania Ciocia watches A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Stefania Ciocia Goes Away with the Fairies at The Bridge Theatre

This production opened at The Bridge on 11 June 2019 and ran until 31 August. It will be broadcast as part of National Theatre Live on 17 October 2019. If you are planning a trip to the cinema for the occasion, you may want to read this blog after you have seen the play, so as to avoid spoilers about this specific production. Below is an account of how much I enjoyed the show when I saw it on 23 August.

While members of the audience are still walking into the theatre – some to take their seats, others to mill about in the round, wondering where best to station themselves – they may be forgiven for thinking they’ve stumbled into a Midsummer Night’s Nightmare, rather than the Dream they’d bargained for. The warm-up for the performance is an unnerving, solemn rendition of several hymns: led by a severe percussive rhythm, Nicholas Hytner’s cast are arranged in rigid formation, their gaze fixed straight ahead to avoid eye contact or any hint of recognition of human fellowship with the spectators. At the end of each tune, they stride away, with collective purpose, until they’ve sung from the middle of each of the four sides of the pit in turn. It’s a grim, robotic procession. The stiff-limbed, even brain-washed, vibe is compounded by the choir’s austere outfits: the men in grey suits, the women in grey dresses and white veils. There’s a whiff of The Handmaid’s Tale in the air.

The dystopic atmosphere gets ramped up with the arrival of Hippolyta (Gwendoline Christie), encased in a glass box, wearing her own sombre outfit. It’s a stark visual illustration of how the Queen of the Amazons and Theseus (Oliver Chris), the Duke of Athens and her groom-to-be, have come together. Theseus’s claim that their nuptials will turn over a new leaf after their martial courtship rings hollow: “Hippolyta, I wooed thee with my sword, / And won thy love doing thee injuries; / But I will wed thee in another key: / With pomp, with triumph, and with revelling”. Keeping the bride in her transparent cage, a prisoner on display, for the entire first scene is not a good start, though it’s a perfect introduction to the similar dark undercurrent in the lovers’ subplot.

The facts are well known: Hermia (Isis Hainsworth) wishes to marry her beloved Lysander (Kit Young) but has been promised to Demetrius (Paul Adeyefa) who is himself pursued in vain by Helena (Tessa Bonham Jones). Theseus sides with Hermia’s father Egeus (Kevin McMonagle) and throws his weight behind the custom of Athenian law: a refusal to comply with the parental diktat will mean “Either to die the death, or to abjure / Forever the society of men”. It’s a testament to the efficacy of the joyless costumes that Theseus’s caution to Hermia about having to “endure the livery of a nun” turns my mind to sartorial matters first, and romantic ones second: that does not sound like half as bad a threat as it is meant to be, given that the alternative is equally dour.

This is no country for young (or old) women, and I wish Hermia would flee with Helena, rather than Lysander, whose barely contained rage (shades of Young’s performance of Octavius in the 2018 Julius Caesar?), though justified, is too testosterone-fuelled for my liking. Hippolyta’s restraint is more compelling. While she is being wheeled off stage, the Queen places her hand on the glass as if to reach out to Hermia. This dignified, powerless gesture of solidarity endows the predicament of the reluctant brides with added gravitas. It’s a highly charged opening. The shambolic preparations for the play-within-the-play to be performed by the rude mechanicals cannot come too soon.

It’s with the troupe of amateur actors, of course, that Shakespeare shifts the Dream into comedic gear, but what I love about this production is the affectionate characterization of Mistress Quince (Felicity Montagu) and her motley crew. Quince is gentle, patient, and super-organized in distributing the parts and briefing her players about The most lamentable comedy and the cruelest death of Pyramus and Thisbe. She responds with great equanimity to Bottom’s (Hammed Animashaun) over-enthusiastic suggestions that he should take on more than one role. My hunch is that she’d happily accommodate him if his requests were at all practicable. And while, as is right, Animashaun hogs the stage with his irresistible boisterousness, the smaller parts are also individualized: timid Flute (Jermaine Freeman), no-nonsense Snout (Ami Metcalf), obliging Starveling (Francis Lovehall) and – my personal favourite, for her bags of attitude and fighting spirit – Snug (Jamie-Rose Monk).[1] All six lower-class characters are brought to life in the guise of loveable innocents rather than preposterous simpletons. I feel encouraged to laugh with them, not at them – a sensation which carries through well into their play-within-the-play and puts me decidedly at a distance from the male lovers’ mockery of the company’s dilettantism in the final act.

Still, the gendering and characterization of the rude mechanicals, and attendant considerations, are small fry in light of the real twist sprung on us in Act II. The customary doubling up of Theseus with Oberon and Hippolyta with Titania is retained, but this production sees the King and the Queen of the Fairies swap roles. It is Titania who has a grudge against Oberon,[2] and it is she who enlists Puck (David Moorst) to carry out her plans for revenge. Moorst’s Robin Goodfellow is worth the price of the ticket in itself. In fact, I fear he may have ruined all future Dreams for me, so close has he come to being the definitive Puck. At first glance, his punk sprite, with rainbow tattoos, spiky hair and customized jeans, looks like a forest-dwelling long-lost member of the Sex Pistols. But the edgy garments and the piercings alone go only so far. It’s how Moorst embodies his character that is utterly mesmerizing.

His ability as an aerialist is impressive, and I can’t take my eyes off the extraordinary mobility of his face: the squinting, the open-mouth wonder, the mischievous look of curiosity, the irrepressible, anarchic cackling. There’s something feral about him – on his haunches, fidgeting, prowling, moving like nobody else around him – and not a cutesy bone in this Puck. He is of fairyland and a creature unto himself, a lone agent set apart both from the stately King and Queen, and from their other fantastical subjects, much more benign in their playfulness, with their sparkling glitter and sequins.

Moorst’s interactions with the audience are in keeping with his capricious, unruly personality. I pity the woman who gets repeatedly berated for not standing aside as Puck travels from one side of the pit to the other: “You’re in the way!” escalates to “You’re still in the way!” and the international sign for “I’ve got my eye on you”, until a final, exasperated “Londoners!” – delivered in Puck’s Mancunian accent – tells us all off. Nobody’s safe from his intemperate straight-talking: interrupted by Titania, he retorts “I’m not finished!”; at the prospect of watching the rude mechanicals’ in theatrical action, he complains “Plays are boring!”. Not with him around, that’s for sure.

Before I realize it, it’s the end of the first half of the play and I’m joining a parade to celebrate the coup de foudre between Oberon and donkey-eared Bottom. I don’t know what it feels like for the seated spectators, but here in the pit the unbridled joy on display has flooded me with dopamine. During the intermission, the fairies – indefatigable – come back to perform their aerial feats: the fabulous Chipo Kureya (Peaseblossom) [pictured left], Jay Webb (Cobweb), Charlotte Atkinson (Moth), Lennin Nelson-McClure (Mustardseed) and Rachel Tolzman (Bedbug) are self-absorbed in their gorgeousness one minute, playing at different degrees of flirtatious the next. It’s impossible not to smile back – and, Chipo, if you are reading this: I left a little piece of my heart with you that evening.

This magical, festive mood couldn’t be further apart from the hymn-singing opening. We’re being nicely prepped for more carnivalesque, all-the-colours-of-the-rainbow revels. Playing up the comedic potential of their gorgeous love affair, Oberon and Bottom return on stage sharing a luxurious bubble bath and champagne. Again, it’s worth emphasizing how this scene manages to be funny and yet keep us entirely on the side of the characters. Yes, it’s cheeky and camp and over-the-top, but in a heart-warming, come-play-with-me, exhilarating way.

Chris’s one-hundred-and-eighty from authoritarian “what-I-say-goes” ruler to kittenish lover is also rather marvellous. The fact that both parties are slightly surprised, and amused, by this unexpected turn of events is life-affirming, and adds to the sexual frisson of the scene. I’m rooting for the two of them, for the egalitarian nature of this new relationship built on playfulness and mutual desire. Bottom is more than a match for his royal partner, and even the line “Not now, babe: I’ve got a headache”, despite its trading on stereotypes for easy laughs, sounds fresh in Animashaun’s delivery.

Against this brilliant homosexual awakening, the development of the lovers’ subplot feels a tad like an overegged pudding. As in the original text, Puck mistakes Lysander for Demetrius, and ends up getting both men to fall in love with Helena, while Hermia is cast aside. In the ensuing, frantic multiple chase, Hytner inserts interventions from Puck and Titania to trigger further momentary pairings. Lysander and Demetrius go from being sworn enemies to having a passionate kiss to enjoying – a trite male heterosexual fantasy – the titillation of watching Helena and Hermia doing the same. The production’s emphasis on sexual fluidity would have worked just as effectively without these touches, but in immersive productions of Shakespeare at The Bridge more is always more. Take it or leave it.

As for the swap between Oberon and Titania, it had initially perplexed me. Given the ultra-patriarchal society of Theseus’s Athens, isn’t it too facile to have a queer fairy world where things operate differently? I am brought around by the suggestion that Oberon/Theseus and Titania/Hippolyta are two incarnations of one man and one woman. When Oberon emerges from his ‘dream’, his confusion gives way to shared laughter with Titania, which intimates that he is in on her joke, and has learnt her lesson. Later on, the sly conspiratorial look that Hippolyta gives the audience when Theseus drop his chauvinist act and relents about Hermia’s choice of spouse, confirms that this is the story of male, masculinist ruler(s) tamed by their Queen(s). Theseus/Oberon will be guided by Hippolyta/Titania in future.

The problem with this reading is that the end of the ‘dream’ smacks of a return to compulsory heterosexuality, and it risks bracketing queerness as a magical parenthesis and making the celebration of fluidity contingent on re-establishing heteronormative standards. It is to the production’s credit that queer is not played as temporary madness; a final, silent exchange between Demetrius and Lysander hints that they haven’t quite forgotten their brief encounter and would not be averse to repeating it. I would dearly love for Bottom to have a similar understanding with Oberon or, even better, with Oberon and Titania in an open menage a troi.

No such luck. Instead, there’s the business of the play-within-the-play to be attended to. The wedded couples’ choice of entertainment is presented as a sort of Athens’s Got Talent, featuring the rude mechanicals as worthy winners with their interpretive dance rendition of Pyramus and Thisbe to Barber’s adagio. Their full performance of the “most lamentable comedy” chucks every possible gag – noisy light-sabre, despondent brick-wall, wrestling lion, and in-jokes about “immersive plays” – in the finale of this super-charged Dream.

My main reservation about it is that it often corners the actors into one-note performances, especially in the second half. This strategy pays off in terms of entertainment value, but it obscures the poignancy of the lovers’ predicament. It is only during the ominous, dystopian first scene that I really feel for Hermia and Helena. By the final act, I remain unconvinced that they have made the right choice of spouses – the younger men are way cockier than mellow Theseus – but I also don’t have the emotional investment to care. Titania’s bound to sort them out.

After the rude mechanicals’ moment of theatrical glory, it’s the spectators’ turn to chip in in the festivities: our merry-go-round dance is less spontaneous than the parade just before the intermission because the fairies, stage-hands and movement stewards need to direct us and, more importantly, stop us in time for Puck’s closing address. In the whole general hubbub, the epilogue gets rather lost. Not so the lovely touch when Puck, dangling upside down as a trapeze artist, reaches to hold the hands of two very lucky members of the audience. Beyoncé’s ‘Love on Top’ plays us all out, and while in the pit we are busy bouncing not one but two giant moons over our heads, the actors get a chance to slink away unobserved.

If you are after low-key performances, then these no holds barred, everything but the kitchen sink productions are probably not your things. But if you love fun, energy, and a chance to re-engage with old favourites from an accessible and fresh perspective, then join me in calling for the next immersive production of Shakespeare at The Bridge. Can they go for the hat trick, I wonder?

[Picture right: Your own fairy correspondent]

Dr Stefania Ciocia is a Reader in Modern and Contemporary Literature at Canterbury Christ Church University. You can find her on Twitter as Gained in Translation @StefaniaCiocia.

[1] It’s only in writing this piece that it occurs to me that the two rude mechanicals played by young women are – in common contemporary parlance – “fierce”. They talk back, show impatience with the absurdity of their roles and, in the case of Snug, relish how frightening their part – go Lion! – is meant to be.

[2] In the original text, Oberon demands that Titania should hand over the “little changeling boy” she has taken custody of. Titania refuses, not least out of loyalty to the mother of the orphan, who had been in life “a votaress of my order”. Michael Billington writes in The Guardian that “the great speech where the fairy queen laments the death of her votaress sounds odd coming from a man”. I don’t entirely agree, but I have to admit that that was the point in the scene where my confusion about what had been happening with the roles cleared up. Until then, I’d been doubting my memories of the play.