Oh my giddy aunt. I have had a most rare vision, past the wit of man to say – except that that’s the job I’ve set myself! It was a wonderful shared vision too – the delight of promenading at the Bridge Theatre (not lessened over time) is at least partially in its communality.
The scene started in an incredibly militaristic Athens – the men all buttoned up, the women in some kind of handmaid’s tale get-up, hair hidden and everything, and poor old Hippolyta being wheeled in in a Perspex box like some sort of museum exhibit*. It all absolutely fit with the stern law which sets the action of the lovers in motion.**
This was a production that, for me, really got the lovers and who all four of them were as people. Isis Hainsworth was a wonderfully pugnacious Hermia who had maybe gained her fight from a blink-and-you’d-miss-it wordless exchange with the boxed-up Hippolyta, but who definitely, always, knew her own mind and whose spirit shone from the first defiance of her father. Helena’s frankly terrifying attitude towards Demetrius*** was matched with an awareness of her own awkwardness (the line which rang most true for me was “We cannot fight for love, as men may do: We should be woo’d and were not made to woo.”) Lysander and Demetrius came across as the sort of surprisingly similar best buds pair you’d get shaped by a military culture****. Lysander was a shade more hipster and played an instrument (Lysander is always a hipster who plays an instrument but to give Kit Young his due, he was a lot more appealing and it was a guitar and not a uke). In terms of costumes, the girls got contrast sleepwear (the difference between them in personality as vast as the difference between a pair of pyjamas and a nightie. But all white. Because Athens is buttoned up). The guys got jeans and t-shirts to run away in, although they didn’t manage to stay fully clothed all that long…
Because, you know, they were in the woods. And the woods are NOT like Athens. Oh goodness me no. The woods were full of the most brilliant, astonishing aerial sprites, floating about over the stage on silks. I honestly don’t think I can convey to you how wonderful the fairies were, in their sequins and their fishnets, flashing overhead with an abandon that was occasionally slightly alarming (I did NOT see safety wires and remember I was promenading so I do mean they were literally literally overhead) but also mystifying*****. The fairies were led by Oliver Chris’s Oberon and Gwendoline Christie’s Titania – a little more earthbound, but absolutely resplendent in gorgeous green silks and velvets.
This is where the plot thickens. For in this production it was Oberon who was tricked by Titania, Oberon who falls in love with Bottom. I did wonder about the whys of this. I hoped it wasn’t just because having enforced gay love gets even more laughs than its straight equivalent****** – they got some four-way action going on between the lovers at one point too – but over time I came to the conclusion that it was simply because between Hammed Animashaun’s hugely bumptious Bottom and Oliver Chris’s ability to reduce an audience to hysterics without actually saying a word there was an incredible chemistry and a comic double-act it would have been a shame to waste. It worked, too, when the traditional doubling up turned the imprisoned Hippolyta into a Titania who takes all the agency, and gave us back at the end a Theseus who had a sort of memory of Oberon’s experience in love and whose heart softened in consequence. Where I have to say it absolutely didn’t work was in the reasoning behind the fairy lovers’ tiff – what is traditionally Titania’s lovely speech about spending time with her pregnant follower sits very strangely on a man’s tongue.
I could write screeds in praise of David Moorst’s cockney, peevish, punk Puck. He only failed to completely steal the show because everyone else in it was so very very good, but his palpable dislike for everyone except Titania, but especially the Athenians (and the audience) was a delightfully tart sauce for the play.
Who else? Oh, of course, the rude mechanicals. It is a rare director who can resist the urge to send up the latest professional trends******* when putting on a play-within-a-play, and thus we ended up with a troupe of Athenians who performed in boiler suits and proudly called their play immersive. We had had a foretaste of the way they were heading when the line “A calendar! A calendar!” ended up with the unusual follow-on, having swiped an audience-member’s phone, of “Unlock your calendar”. The tale of Pyramus and Thisbe would have felt a little overlong, I think, if it weren’t for the timely commentary from the audience (If I write “Oh it’s a hat!” I guarantee anyone who saw the production will be having a chuckle), and the full-bore commitment to being terrible offered up by the actors, especially Adam Cunis, the understudy who we saw take the stage as Moonshine, and Felicity Montagu’s Quince, a director entirely overborne by Bottom’s self-professed star.
This play took place in a gloriously transformed Athens – no more monochrome outfits, all the couples were in colour – and set the stage for a gloriously festival finale with some rocking tunes, some very large balls, and those of us in the pit, having been pushed and passed round the stage as it rise and fell********, tasked with fulfilling Puck’s request to “Give me your hands”********* and left to dance in fairy rings. A suitably upbeat ending to a gloriously upbeat production.
* I always say, if you’re going to be dragged on stage, make sure it’s like Cleopatra – you’re in bed and the men doing the hard work are scantily clad and very good looking…
** Even if, now I think about it, it really fails to explain the rude mechanicals’ generally light-hearted attitude to life. It’s almost like there was inadequate world-building involved in this play…
*** I’m pretty sure we have laws against this kind of stalking now.
**** They shared bunk beds. Enough said.
***** Puck at one point managed to be appear to be lounging for most of a scene while carrying his entire weight through his arms. I go climbing and I know this is hard to do, and even harder to make look effortless. I left the show seriously wondering whether he was in fact a fairy hiding in plain sight.
****** Especially when one of the pair is called Bottom. Let’s triple-up all those already-doubled entendres.
******* Even their own trends…
******** There were big bits of set moving around and I remain amazed that every production seems to go off without injury. And I’ve given myself a blinding idea for a horror novel where the stage starts demanding human sacrifice…
********* The couple next to me tried to cross arms and got a delightfully waspish, if not quite in-character “It’s not Aukd Lang Syne” from Kit Young.