The emergence of knowing chuckles from audience members during the opening of Nicholas Hynter’s new production at The Bridge Theatre initially began to reaffirm my expectations surrounding the often pretentious, elitist notions of Shakespearean comedy’s 21stcentury reception. However, the former National Theatre director’s striking revisualisation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream subsequently works to challenge these associations robustly. The dreamlike artistic beauty of this play is captured and reworked expertly in a production packed with dramatic creativity, imagination, subversion and genuine humour.
Hynter’s assembly of a genuinely diverse cast reflective of modern Britain is punctuated by a replacement of the stuffier, more ostentatious elements of Shakespearean comedy with more accessible humour. Characters such as Bottom the Weaver and Puck interact with audience members continually, moving amongst them as various dramatic platforms rise and fall, encouraging interaction, borrowing spectators’ phones and chastising those who obstruct the constant spatial dynamism of the play.
The inspired utilisation of beds as the dramatic basis of both courtly and forest scenes is facilitated by the attachment of simplistic props such as twisting green vines and flowers. Hynter consequently constructs a sense of fluidity between spaces, which is amplified by the perpetual presence of members of the magical fairy world, whose captivating acrobatics provide a new dimension to the performance.
Perhaps the most interesting element of this adaptation is its approach to gender dynamics, which transgress wildly from Shakespearean tradition. The reversal of the Fairy King and Queen’s roles sees the newly empowered Titania humiliate her husband by devising his love affair with a half-mule, half-man version of Bottom. This subversive thrusting of homosexuality to the narrative’s core is accentuated by occasional moments of trickery which see Titania and her accomplice Puck conjure momentary sexual passions between male heroes Lysander and Demetrius and female heroines Hermia and Helena. Hynter’s dramatic transgression from conventional elements of the play operates alongside a looser use of Shakespearean dialogue and an inclusion of BME and female voices to portray a dramatic world appropriate for a modern audience.
One interesting detail relating to the play’s racial dynamics is the parallel created between the black male labourers (Bottom, Flute, Starveling) and the white female labourers (Snug, Snout). The latter appear onstage in blue work overalls, whereas the former are dressed in orange overalls, outfits notoriously linked with the American prison system. Considering the play’s general sense of self-awareness, Hynter appears here to be critiquing the overwhelming, disproportional punishment of black men within this system. This detail reinforces an acute sense of social awareness which permeates this interpretation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
While perhaps it may be a push to describe the £15 pit tickets as cheap, they do represent genuine value for money and an attempt to offer the public more affordable, more immersive theatrical experiences. Hynter appears to recognise and attempt to combat theatre’s serious problems with accessibility, and he does so through a remarkably impressive visual and dramatic experience.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream will be performed at The Bridge Theatre, 3 Potters Field Park, London SE1 2SG until 31stAugust. More info: https://bridgetheatre.co.uk/whats-on/a-midsummer-nights-dream/
Words, Frederick Garrett Stanley – @fred_gs
Images, Manuel Harlan