Nicholas Hytner’s promenade production of Julius Caesar, staged at the Bridge Theatre early last year,  put the audience at its heart. Those standing in the pit became the Roman public, artfully directed around the space by a crack stage management team, the actors standing so close to the audience that you might well get a bit of David Morrissey’s sweat on you. It was a thrillingly kinetic, politically charged experience.
Reuniting the same creative team, Hytner’s take on A Midsummer Night’s Dream sees the theatre similarly configured, with the auditorium arranged in-the-round and a central pit in which audience members can stand, but there the similarity ends. There’s very little encouragement to move around the space. There’s not a lot of actual promenading. The immersive elements amount to some enforced handholding and the opportunity to dance, should you so wish. The experience is akin to being at Shakespeare’s Globe only drier, or a Pride march where everyone’s sober.
We first see Gwendoline Christie – Game of Thrones’ Brienne of Tarth, and arguably the production’s biggest draw – as Hippolyta standing in a glass case labelled “Queen of the Amazons”, like some kind of exhibit. She and all the Athenians wear austere, quasi-religious garb, wimples and long black coats. This Athens is a pious, pleasureless and repressive society until the arrival of David Moorst’s Puck, clad in beglittered jeans and a decaled T-shirt, arms laden with rainbow wristbands and tattoos, comporting himself like a disco velociraptor, laconic, impish, and very likely the first on the dance floor at Heaven on a Friday.
It soon transpires that Christie’s Titania and Oliver Chris’ Oberon have essentially switched roles so that it’s him who ends up besotted with Hammed Animashaun’s Bottom.
Hytner clearly intends to have some fun with the play’s inherent fluidity, and to some extent he succeeds. The scenes between Chris and Animashaun are very funny. They have great chemistry and the sight of a gyrating, shirtless Oberon putting the moves on Bottom is amusing. The impact would be lessened if we were simply being invited to laugh at a man making moon-eyes at another man, but Hytner avoids that by allowing warmth and tenderness into their exchanges. The look that Oberon shoots Bottom once the spell is lifted is full of longing and hope, while Bottom revels in the attention.
The scenes with the lovers are more muted. Puck and Titania collude so that the quartet all end up considering each other, albeit briefly, as possible partners. Trouble is that, Isis Hainsworth’s sparky Hermia aside, they’re a bit indistinguishable.
Having turned the Bridge auditorium into the Roman Forum for his Caesar, Hytner now transforms it into a big top. The fairies are played by circus-trained performers, swinging from silks above the stage; Moorst also impresses in this regard, clutching purple flowers between his toes as he dangles from the ceiling, delivering some of his lines while hanging upside down.
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. There’s a Neverland quality to their escapades, as they plunge into the forest clad in a mixture of nightwear and outdoor wear.
In her cascading emerald gown, Christie has a fittingly regal quality as a performer – a radiance and warmth. 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.
It takes the arrival of the Rude Mechanicals, led by Felicity Montagu’s Quince to shake things up. There’s a lot of good stuff in their scenes. They borrow an audience member’s phone to ascertain whether they will be moonshine on the night of their performance and take a cheeky selfie; they generally liven things up.
But while they’re all strong comic performers, there’s also something uncomfortable about their scenes, a class dynamic at play that feels under-interrogated. In the beginning they’re all wearing overalls. Are they on some sort of work scheme? It’s not clear.
For the performance of Pyramus and Thisbe, they wear matching purple sweatshirts, like a school group. The interruption and mockery by the entitled Athenians feels particularly intrusive and rude. Francis Lovehall’s Starveling is cruelly teased. Hytner highlights the ugliness of this – the unthinkingness of privilege – but the line between laughing at and laughing with feels uncomfortably thin. The use of Dizzee Rascal’s Bonkers cements the fact that this is production striving for something, a youthful celebratory vibe that it never quite attains.
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, as by the end, the characters have shed the dour outfits of the opening for posh wedding attire.
This is not to say it’s not a lot of fun: the circus routine that concludes the first half is visually impressive, the production has a timely embracive message, is easy to follow and enjoy. There’s clarity of verse throughout– you’d expect no less from Hytner – but what it lacks is clarity of purpose.