In early 2018, Nicholas Hytner scored the first big hit at his new Bridge Theatre with a star-studded promenade production of Julius Caesar. A year and a bit on, and he’s trying to repeat the feat, getting the JC band back together for an immersive staging of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
The star attraction this time around is Gwendoline Christie, who was catapulted to fame thanks to her role as Brienne of Tarth in HBO’s blockbuster fantasy series Game of Thrones. She’s joined by David Moorst, Hammed Animashaun, Oliver Chris and a host of standing audience members.
Hytner has a reputation for directing entertaining, accessible Shakespeares. His pre-Bridge days as artistic director at the National were almost defined by them, with hits including Hamlet, Othello, and Henry V.
Does he pull off the same trick here with the nation’s favourite Shakespeare play? Are the critics adequately immersed in an ethereal Athens? Or is this production more of a tedious trudge than a pleasant promenade?
Fergus Morgan rounds up the reviews.
Few plays offer themselves to gender-fluidity as easily as A Midsummer Night’s Dream, full, as it is, of transient passions and illicit affairs. Hytner’s staging dives right in, even swapping the roles of Oberon and Titania (so that Oberon falls in love with the ass-headed Bottom). It’s a reading of the play that divides the critics.
Some think it’s marvellous. Andrzej Lukowski (Time Out, ★★★★) calls it “riotously gender-fluid” and Paul Taylor (Independent, ★★★★) thinks it’s “gloriously funny”. Henry Hitchings (Evening Standard, ★★★★★), meanwhile, labels it “funny, sexy and romantic” and Dominic Maxwell (Times, ★★★★) writes that it’s an “immersive, irreverent, spectacular, slyly feminist, sometimes properly dreamlike staging of Shakespeare’s summer special”.
Rachel Halliburton (Arts Desk, ★★★★★) says it’s “a feat of exuberant brilliance, a gender-juggling romp that takes Shakespeare’s subversive text and polishes it so that it glints and shines like a glitterball at a disco”.
Dominic Cavendish (Telegraph, ★★★★★) loves it. Hytner’s “liberty-taking” is “true to the spirit of the play”, he writes, adding that this is “the most accomplished Shakespeare production of his that I’ve ever encountered”.
Other critics aren’t convinced, though. Michael Billington (Guardian, ★★★) observes that “Hytner’s purpose, I guess, is to question the idea of a rigid, binary sexuality”, but he has problems with the director’s “textual transpositions”, while Mark Shenton (LondonTheatre, ★★★) finds all the innovations “a bit second-hand”.
“Hytner clearly intends to have some fun with the play’s inherent fluidity, and to some extent he succeeds,” says Natasha Tripney (The Stage, ★★★). “Despite the unfurling of a huge rainbow flag over the audience’s heads at one point, this all amounts to a rather gentle queering of the play. The transformations, the loosening up, all feel a little too easy.”
For his promenade production of Julius Caesar, Hytner turned the Bridge Theatre into an in-the-round space and made the standing audience a riotous Roman mob. He uses the same set-up here, and most reviewers agree that it works well.
“Having turned the Bridge auditorium into the Roman Forum for his Caesar, Hytner now transforms it into a big top,” describes Tripney. “The fairies are played by circus-trained performers, swinging from silks above the stage. Bunny Christie’s set, colourfully lit by Bruno Poet, consists of a series of turf-covered moveable platforms and a number of beds, into which the lovers tumble.”
Billington praises the show’s “wealth of invention” and writes that it’s “staged with immense physical bravura and is great fun”, while Halliburton suggests that it might be “one of the best parties of the summer”.
“This irreverent interpretation has the atmosphere of a party,” agrees Hitchings. “It’s best experienced as a groundling in the theatre’s pit, where the sense of mischief spreads like a giant smile.”
Not everyone agrees. “Why did they bother?” questions Daisy Bowie-Sell (WhatsOnStage, ★★★). “There are moments where the staging, in which Hytner has a chunk of the audience standing watching from the pit, does come into its own. But mostly, certainly as an audience member on the ground, it is tiresome.”
“There isn’t a huge amount to ‘do’ if you’re part of the standing audience, but there is something inclusive and fun about being in the increasingly giddy midst of it all, of being up close while various guilty pop pleasures blare away, and cast members leap out of the beds that surround us or descend from the silks above,” contends Lukowski.
“As the whole thing sort of collapses into a massive cast-audience dance party – complete with giant moon balls! – it’s a real wrench to remember we can’t just hide out in these woods for ever,” he concludes.
Gwendoline Christie might have been made globally famous thanks to Game of Thrones, but she had a successful stage career prior to that, performing in Cheek By Jowl’s Cymbeline opposite Tom Hiddleston, and in Breakfast at Tiffany’s in the West End.
She acquits herself fairly well here as Hippolyta and Titania, according to the critics. She’s “charismatic” for Taylor, “arrestingly pale and interesting” for Cavendish, and “graceful and forceful” for Crompton.
“In her cascading emerald gown, Christie has a fittingly regal quality as a performer – a radiance and warmth,” writes Tripney. “But, since the roles have been inverted, she often ends up pushed into the background. She doesn’t get to flex her comic muscles much either.”
There’s plenty of praise elsewhere. Oliver Chris’ Oberon is “superlatively funny” according to Taylor and “has comedy etched into every fibre of his body” according to Halliburton, while Hammed Animashaun plays Bottom “to ebullient perfection” according to Cavendish, and Moorst is “astonishingly agile” as Puck according to Crompton.
“Even if you ignore all the bells, whistles and man-snogs, the fact of the matter is that Hytner has assembled a preposterously good comedy cast,” gushes Lukowski. “For me, Animashaun’s guileless, enthusiastic Bottom was probably man of the match, but Chris’ sensitive Oberon, Christie’s ethereal Hippolyta/Titania and Moorst’s twitchily anarchic Puck were all tip-top, as were the marvellously detailed smaller performances from the fairies, lovers and Mechanicals.”
Nick Hytner’s second stab at immersive Shakespeare in his nascent Southbank space has garnered an odd gamut of reviews. Some critics adore it – with five stars from Dominic Cavendish in the Telegraph and Henry Hitchings in the Evening Standard – while others are more equivocal – three stars from The Stage’s Natasha Tripney, The Guardian’s Michael Billington and WhatsOnStage’s Sarah Crompton.
There’s not much consensus over Hytner’s handling of the text, but most reviewers agree that his staging is exuberant and energetic, and that Christie, Chris, Animashaun and Moorst all turn in strong comic performances. Definitely not a nightmare, this Dream is either so-so or spectacular, depending on who you read.