You remember Bottom the Weaver, the stagestruck Athenian goofball who goes to rehearse a tragedy in the woods and winds up the boy toy of Titania, Queen of the Fairies? Well, this time the bed and bubble bath that Bottom gets to share belong to Oberon, the Fairy King. Welcome to Nicholas Hytner’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, an immersive free-for-all filmed live in 2017 at the Bridge Theatre in London. Titania and Oberon haven’t just traded places; their switcheroo is more mix-and-match than that. No matter how well you think you know the play, you’ll be down the rabbit hole before you know what hit you.
Like numberless other directors, Hytner casts a single pair of actors as both the fairy royals and the human power couple, Duke Theseus of Athens and his fiancée Hippolyta, captive Queen of the Amazons. And why not? It’s cost-effective, and the self-evident parallels underscore the baked-in patriarchalism of the play. But in Hytner’s fun-house mirror, while Theseus really does rule Athens, Oberon only thinks he’s in charge. Along with most of his lines, his power to make things happen has migrated to Titania. So, this time, it’s Oberon who goes gaga for the monster with the donkey’s head. O, brave new world!
As Hippolyta, Gwendolyn Christie glides onstage locked in a glass box, exuding the resentful defiance she patented as the virgin-warrior Brienne of Tarth in Game of Thrones. Her Titania makes a ferocious antagonist in the early battle royal with Oberon, but it isn’t long before she’s just loving all her new “masculine” prerogatives. At six-foot-three, with tumbling tresses, in ballet slippers and an emerald ball gown, Christie sculpts space like Isadora, even as she fires up the ice-cold speeches Shakespeare wrote for Oberon with a new, wild, whinnying glee.
On the other side of the ledger, Olivier Chris’s elegiac Oberon awakens to his walk on the Wilde side in innocent wonder—and walks away when it’s over still innocent but apprehensive and spooked to the soul. Bashfully, he looks at Titania. Inscrutable, she looks at him. You’re on tenterhooks—until suddenly, they make you so happy you could cry.
The Nigerian-British actor Hammed Animashaun makes a big, burly, bouncy Bottom of many disarming voices. But then, the entire cast, from David Moorst’s raucous Irish Puck in service to Titania, to the quartet of polyamorous young Athenian lovers and Bottom’s pals from the drama club, give their vivid, well-spoken all.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream is available to stream on National Theatre at Home Web site
Matthew Gurewitsch writes about opera and classical music for AIR MAIL. He lives in Hawaii