A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Bridge Theatre review *****

A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Bridge Theatre, 6th June 2019

Go join the Shakespeare party down at the Bridge. Nick Hytner pretty much always nails the Bard and he has done it again here. Ignore the lukewarm reviews from the critics who seem to have got a little bit antsy with Hytner’s central inversion of Titania/Hippolyta and Theseus/Oberon. Yes this creates a couple of creaky moments, but what it gains in its celebration of non-binary, gender fluid sexuality, more than compensates. And it helps make this the funniest Dream I have ever seen. Add to this the sense, if not maybe the actuality, of immersion which comes from the promenaders in the pit, (though this may not be the best place to take everything in), and the multiple wow moments that flow from set, staging, costumes and cast, and, for me, this became unmissable. My only regret is being tucked away in a corner on my tod because I couldn’t persuade any of the usual suspects that this would be a Shakespeare production free from their usual misgivings. Should have tried hared.

Did I also say that the cast delivers the full text with perfect transparency? Because they do. OK so maybe a little of the poetry gets sidelined amidst all the activity, and there are some fairly unsubtle, though often very amusing, additional lines. But if you want a Dream to show exactly what is going on along the way then this is for you. The unpleasant nature of the genesis of the story is also not shirked. Theseus was the king in Greek myth who founded the Athenian democracy, having defeated the Amazons led by Hippolyta, whom he subjugated.. The play opens with a “celebration” of this event, here with the women dressed in religious habits and Hippolyta in the form of the imposing guise of Gwendoline Christie, (you know who in you know what), imprisoned in a glass cage. Oliver Chris, who I confess I am now even more a little bit inn love with, cuts a rigid Theseus. All the guff about the little baby and Egeus’s (Kevin McMonagle) demands of his daughter starts to make sense. Hippolyta looks at Hermia (Isis Hainsworth) and the brutal truth of the patriarchal norm is established.

Not for long though. AMND after all is all about the dreams. What happens when we are plunged into another, freer “reality.” And how that other “reality” affects our real reality, if you see what I mean. And it is joy, celebration, sexy time and swapping which defines this particular “reality”. So to invert the two dual characters makes perfect sense and lets fly the interventions which fuel all sorts of other passions, from the Athenian lovers, from the fairies and best of all from Bottom (Hammed Animashaun) and the now liberated Oberon. You would be hard pressed tp find a better double act on any stage than these two. Anywhere. Anytime. I am constantly amazed just how good a comedy writer big Will was and how, in sympathetic hands, even gags I have heard multiple times can still make me smile. Though here it is much what we see as what we hear that makes it so funny.

Anyway once all the shenanigans in the forest is over and we return to the city, and the weddings, and the mechanicals, the change in Theseus rings true. His world changed for good over one blinding night out. Like I say I cannot praise Oliver Chris enough. In my book one of the best comic actors on the British stage. As is Hammed Animashaun. A Bottom who might have stepped off any London street today.

Mt Hytner has not neglected the rest of the play to perfect his central conceit. The mechanicals here are mixed gender led by Felicity Montagu’s sincere Quince. She is another comic acting genius. We all have our top ten funniest Partridge moments. An honest appraisal will see Lynn feature in many of them. (BTW if you don’t have a Partridge top ten I have to wonder why you are here as clearly you have no sense of humour). Ami Metcalf as Snout, Jamie-Rose Monk (I need to see her one woman show) as Snug, Francis Lovehall as Starveling and Jermaine Freeman as Flute are equally amusing. In both the rehearsal scene and Pyramus and Thisbe, every comic detail has been thought through to leave the real audience in stitches.

Yet, at the same time the lovers, Helena (Tessa Bonham Jones), Hermia, Demetrius (Paul Adeyefa) and Lysander (Kit Young) with their asides and silences as they watch the “performance” reveal that not all has changed gender-relationship wise in Athens. It isn’t entirely clear whether the two cheeky chaps, who even had a snog in the forest, are going to rise to their better selves with their new wives as they lay into the generous, if hapless, mechanicals. Nor do they see the tragedy, which they avoided, in the inadvertent comedy presented by the proles. Clever Mr Hytner and clever Mr Shakespeare.

Whilst in the forest the couples roam, romp , argue and sleep as you would expect. But here the set transforms into a magical world. As in the production of Julius Caesar last year, the stage hands and the marshals doing an incredible job of marshalling platforms and people into position. From which the beds, on which the various lovers frolic, and even a bath for Bottom and Theseus to soap up, create context and structure. Add to this the rise and fall of said beds, (a fair few of the cast spend an inordinate of time suspended, kipping), and the acrobatics of the fairies, Peaseblossom (Chipo Kureya), Cobweb (Jay Webb), Moth (Charlotte Atkinson), Mustardseed (Lennin Nelson-McClure, the leader of the troupe) and Bedbug (Rachel Tolzman), and even those with minimal attention spans would surely be satisfied. The teen next to me was a little restless in the first half and needed a minor dressing down from Mum. Come the second half though and she was as gleefully engaged as everyone around me was.

The fairies were a little wobbly on the lines but their movement and music, (Mr Rascal’s Bonkers a particular highlight), more than made up for this. I praise Nick Hytner so highly because he is the captain of the ship, and I know what he can do with Shakespeare, but frankly all his ideas would have come to naught without Bunny Christie’s set, Christine Cunningham’s costumes, Grant Olding’s composition, Bruno Poet’s lighting and Paul Arditti’s sound. And very especially Arlene Phillip’s movement. Though this went beyond movement into complex, three dimensional choreography. Just wonderful. And Suzanne Peretz also deserves a massive call-out for her wigs, effects, hair and make-up. I am not sure I would be going put looking like one of the fairies at my age but I would have killed for a make-over from her before hitting a club in the glory days of New Romanticism in 1981. The Tourist and partners’ homemade efforts at the time being exactly that, homemade.

Of course our fairies celebrated gender diversity but David Moorst’s Puck goes one step further, a pangender Pan with flat vowels, perfect comic timing and a nice line in exasperation with his now, female, mistress. And you try delivering Shakespeare whilst executing perfect aerial silks. In fact try either one and see if you get anyway close to Mr Moorst’s virtuosity. This is an actor who has not stood out for me before. He did this time.

Now I can see that if you want pure verse, gossamer wings and a donkey head this might not be the Dream for you. But then I am not sure that Dream is relevant, or mines the multiple layers of Shakespeare’s imagination, in any circumstances. I do not believe that even big Will realised the complexity of interpretation that the Dream affords, all that anxiety and repression of urges, though he probably had a pretty good idea, so it is up to each generation to examine its meanings, as well, of course, to entertain. Mr Hytner, as he always does, takes a view, and works it through to almost perfect effect, but he also never forgets to entertain us. These shadows mend all those who would search for offence in who we want to be.

Stories at the National Theatre review ***

Stories

National Theatre Dorfman, 27th November 2018

Nina Raine has a knack for dramatising contemporary social issues from multiple perspectives and a gift for sharp comedy observation. At least based on her last work Consent as I have not seen her other acclaimed works Tribes and Rabbit. However here I wonder if her determination to cover the ground, and to entertain us in each of the many scenes, may have ended up stalling the momentum of the whole play. As well as serving up a few slightly jarring moments. And the decision to cast, and give free rein to, Sam Troughton in many of the male “candidate” roles, whilst he is very funny, did rather detract from the central dilemma.

Everywoman Anna (unassumingly played by the always accomplished Claudie Blakley) is 39, successful in her theatre career but wanting a baby, after partner, the conceited, and fraught, man-child/mummy’s boy Tom, (our first taste of Sam Troughton’s comic range), decides he wants to split. This despite the couple investing in a couple of years of IVF. Bourgeois Mum (Margot Leicester) and Dad (Stephen Boxer), both excellent, are supportive, if occasionally a little un-PC, as is gay young brother Joe (Brian Vernel). And so the search for the ideal sperm begins. She auditions a procession of possibles (and occasionally their partners), in person as well as mail-order, whose pros and cons are entertainingly dissected, with help from family and friends (most notably Thusitha Jayasundera’s forthright Beth. Tom, who is somewhat younger than Anna, even gets to make his case for a second chance.

The direction is sympathetic, unsurprising given Nina Raine herself takes on the task, Jeremy Herbert’s set of moving boxes is neat and unobtrusive, as is Bruno Poet’s lighting and Alex Baranowski’s music and sound. All the requisite bases are covered, including the grown-up searching for a birth parent, but the narrative lacks surprise and the whole ends up as less than the sum of its parts. In making her conundrum believable, and explaining why she might contemplate some of the prize c*cks on show here as potential donors/fathers, Anna comes over as a bit wet in her exasperated optimism if I am honest. Too many ideas, not always fully developed, with a bit of awkward shoe-horning in of situation, character (a wide-eyed child, a Russian octogenarian) and her research on occasion.

Having said that, given the quality of the lines that Nina Raine puts into the mouths of her characters to elucidate her wry observations, it is impossible to dislike the play even as the lack of a killer punch frustrates. Ms Raine is particularly good at nailing the excuses that the men offer for their hesitancies and the validations they demand for their, brief, potential participation. In fact maybe too good, as this squeezes out the space to understand what Anna is feeling. Or maybe that is precisely the point that Nina Raine was trying to make.

Julius Caesar at the Bridge Theatre *****

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Julius Caesar

Bridge Theatre, 28th February 2018

I had really, really been looking forward to this. Julius Caesar is one of my favourite Shakespeare plays. Contemporary relevance of course, but Shakespeare always has relevance. My appetite whetted by the excellent RSC production I saw at the Barbican last month, (Julius Caesar at the Barbican Theatre review ****) and by Phyllida Lloyd’s heady all-female interpretation at the Donmar Kings Cross in 2016. Nicholas Hytner in the director’s chair and Ben Whishaw, David Morrissey, Michelle Fairley and David Calder in the four lead roles.

So a little bit of snow wasn’t going to stop me getting there, and dragging the SO along with me. It didn’t disappoint. Best play I have seen so far this year, along with John at the NT: admittedly we are only a couple of months in, with the NT Macbeth having just opened and, I haven’t yet seen Network at the NT. Still this is a cracker. There are plenty of tickets left in the run, though the cheaper seats have largely gone, (it is hard to believe there is a bad seat anywhere in the Bridge), but it is well worth 50 quid or, if you are a fit young’un snap up a promenade ticket and be part of the action.

The transformation into a promenade space from the straight on staging of Young Marx shows just how marvellous the Bridge space is. The promenaders are shepherded around the pit by stewards, a metaphor for the manipulation of the populus as effective as it is obvious. Bunny Christie’s production design is equally blunt but effective, with a series of plinths rising from the floor as and when scenes change. A massive shout out to production manager Kate West, company stage manager Hetti Curtis and the rest of the team at work for this performance and behind the scenes. To make this intricate production succeed, whilst actually enhancing its dynamism, takes real skill. Watch and see, especially, the floor transformed into a battlefield for the final scenes. The stage management team were rewarded with well deserved applause at the end. Bravo.

Even before Caesar (David Calder) appears in front of the crowd with Mark Anthony (David Morrissey) in tow, we have a treat in storm with a some pumped up rock’n’roll for Lupercal courtesy of a street band made up of Abraham Popoola, Fred Fergus, Zachary Hunt and Kit Young. I already have a high regard for Mr Popoola, having seen his vigorous Tobacco Factory Othello alongside Norah Lopez Holden’s Desdemona and Mark Lockyer’s Iago at Wilton’s Music Hall. (Othello at Wilton’s Music Hall review ****). Turns out he can sing a bit too and he puts in a stint as a plotter in the form of a taciturn Trebonius. Fred Fergus doubles up as a slow-witted Lucius and gets a right kicking as Cinna, in that simple but so effective mistaken identity scene. Kit Young is a crafty Octavius.

David Calder’s Caesar ticks all the right boxes: proud, conceited, vainglorious. Here is a man used to getting his own way. His eventual dismissal of Calpurnia’s (an under-utilised Wendy Kweh) qualms about his visit to the Senate is insouciant but still reveals a hint of underlying unease. Our conspirators are a thoughtful bunch. Michelle Fairley as Cassius is neither bluntly straightforward in her entreaties to Brutus not bitter in her abhorrence of Caesar and what he is turning into. Instead she is logical, using force of argument to persuade Brutus to lead the coup. Books, glasses, a desk and Ben Whishaw’s innate demeanour make him a contemplative, but still determined, Brutus. You can easily see why his belief in his own rectitude might come across as priggish arrogance to the crowd. He seems to be going through the motions in his justification speech. Mind you I can see why he might underestimate David Morrissey’s Mark Antony. He comes across as a duplicitous chancer, making up as he goes along. I don’t recall being as struck by his mendaciousness before in the scene with Octavius at the beginning of the battle when he brusquely withdraws the pay-out to the people in Caesar’s will.

I reckon a woman playing Cassius, (and indeed women playing other of the conspirators), will, and should, become the norm. It creates a shift in the dynamic between Cassius and Brutus which can be profitably mined, both in the early conspiracy scenes and in the bust-up and reconciliation ahead of the battle. I am not sure whether the distance I sensed between Brutus and Portia, (Leaphia Darko who I hope to see in a much bigger role), was intended but it created an interesting ingredient. Every Casca should be as pointedly sardonic as the scene-stealing Adjoa Andoh. I know Ms Andoh has had an illustrious stage career but I couldn’t help thinking, for example, how much better the recent RSC production of Antony and Cleopatra would have been with her in the driving seat. The rest of the cast, Mark Penfold as Lepidus, Ligarius and the Soothsayer, Nick Sampson as Cinna, Leila Farzad as the reluctant Decius Brutus, Hannah Stokely as Mellellus Cimber, Sid Sagar and Rose Ede were all on top form.

Nick Hytner directed the first Shakespeare productions that ever made any sense to me; his RSC productions of King Lear and The Tempest with the incomparable John Wood. This was when I first “got Shakespeare”.. He is the master of modern dress, “contemporary” Shakespeare. Early on at the NT he created a Henry V with Adrian Lester which was the antithesis of jingoistic. All the surveillance stuff in Hamlet that Robert Icke loaded up on at the Almeida. Look no further than Hytner’s 2010 version with a bookish Rory Kinnear as the Dane. His Othello at the NT with, surprise, surprise, Adrian Lester and Rory Kinnear, is possibly the best Shakespeare production I have ever seen. His Timon of Athens with Simon Russell Beale kicked into a cocked hat any notion that this is a difficult, unbalanced play.

His visual language is so complete that, even if you don’t catch every line. (let’s face it that is going to happen with Will S, one reason why you can never see too many productions), you still comprehend pretty much everything in front of you. He takes a view for sure, but always in the service of the universal themes that the plays wrestle with. Every single detail is thought through. For anyone who thinks Shakespeare is not for them, Mr Hytner will change your mind.. It helps that his key collaborators in this production, Bruno Poet (lighting), Christine Cunningham (costume), Nick Powell (music), Kate Waters (fight) and, especially here, Paul Arditti (sound) are so expert in bringing his vision to life.

The Trumpian allusions are not overplayed. No need to. We can see the attraction of Caesar to the crowd, but we also see why the conspirators are so alarmed by his lazy demagoguery. The vacuum that is created after the assassination, a visual twist here, is palpable, as the patronising elitist Brutus and the pragmatic Cassius haven’t thought through what happens next. Sounds familiar eh. Which leaves a yawning gap for the opportunist Mark Antony to unleash those war dogs. The failure of the “liberal’ response to populism hangs heavy in the air.

Finally here is my plea to Mr Hytner. Whilst I absolutely get that Messrs Shakespeare, Bean, Bennett, Hodge and McDonagh are, incontrovertibly, the best of writing collaborators, and I see he has the scoop on Nina Raine’s new play, please can you have another crack at Ben Jonson or Marlowe. Maybe you can make sense out of Bartholomew Fair and pull the punters in. There’s a challenge.

P.S. I note that another play that deals with the had-wringing liberal response to populism, albeit in a very, very different way, Roland Schimmelpfennig’s Winter Solstice, still has a few more legs of its tour left, Plymouth, Edinburgh and Scarborough. Highly recommended.