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.

Pinter at the Pinter 4 review ****

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Pinter at the Pinter Four: Moonlight and Night School

Harold Pinter Theatre, 6th December 2018

The Tourist is a bit off the pace what with that the holiday celebrations to enjoy/get through (delete as appropriate). Still three more of the Pinter one act plays season to look forward too as well as the Betrayal with that nice Mr Tom Hiddleston playing the part of Robert (with the actors for Emma and Jerry yet too be announced).

Pinter 4 though brought together a couple of the master’s longer one-act efforts leaving no room for any of the add-ons that have characterised the prior outings. Moreover Jamie Lloyd stood aside here to leave the directorial duties to, respectively, Lyndsey Turner and Ed Stambollouian. Moonlight, from 1993, is concerned with the way memory is constructed, and comes from a similar place to Landscape and A Kind of Alaska, the plays that anchored Pinter 3, whilst Night School, from 1979, is a more “conventional” comedy matching many of the smaller scale comic works in the previous collection.

Now I see that many of the proper reviews were not altogether convinced by Moonlight. The Tourist however actually found it to be one of the most intriguing plays of the season so far, even accepting its recondite character. Civil servant Andy (a testy and crude Robert Glenister) is dying and confined to bed. His wife Bel, (the wonderful Brid Brennan who I had unaccountably never seen on stage until The Ferryman) is, with good grace at his ingratitude, getting on with the job of tending to him. Andy, perhaps whilst dreaming, and in bracing conversation with Bel, looks back on the highs, and lows, of his life, including, maybe, an affair with Maria (Janie Dee) and affection for an old friend, football referee Ralph (Peter Polycarpou). We cut alternately to his two sons, the affected Jake (Al Weaver) and more prosaic Fred (Dwayne Walcott), ostensibly in another flat, engaged in enigmatic, (and on occasion near-nonsensical), conversation and impersonation, which, it transpires, is partly their way of avoiding the death of their father. Their younger sister, Bridget (Isis Hainsworth), dressed in bright red duffel coat, also flits in and out: my guess is she might already have died. She certainly has the best lines at the end.

Lyndsey Turner, never one to make her life easy, lets all of her excellent cast do their stuff leaving Pinter’s words and our imagination do the working out. Which is exactly as it should be. Like I say this is a play about a family constructing and re-constructing their past and present. As we all do. There is no definitive “reality” when it comes to our own stories. We only mis-remember fragments of our lives. HP might not be alone in understanding this but he is pretty much the only playwright whose language can turn this into a stage drama where, whilst the old grey matter is whizzing and fizzing in its quest for meaning, we can still simultaneously care about how so and so and such and such can get from A to B.

In Night School, which started life out on the TV, the versatile Al Weaver (it would be good to see him tread the boards more often) is an ex-con, Walter, who returns home to find his room has been let to the enigmatic femme fatale Sally (Jessica Barden). She, we discover, leads a double life as PE teacher, night-school student and hostess in a night-club owned by the seedy Tully (Peter Polycarpou). Walter, when he is not being verbally prodded by retired East End gangster sort Solto (Robert Glenister thoroughly enjoying himself). or molly-coddling landlady spinster aunts Annie and Milly (Bird Brennan and Janie Dee, likewise), falls hook, line and sinker for Sally, bigging up his gang-land connections whilst falling well short with his chat-up lines.

It is actually quite shocking in its ordinariness. As if Pinter were writing a Pinter play with all the Pinter removed and replaced by Ealing comedy and a dash of Orton. It is East End boarding house in the early 1960s right down to the tea trolley and extravagant dropped aitches.

Pinter may have clicked through the gears in terms of power, class, politics, gender, absurdity and metaphysics across his writing career, becoming part of, whilst remaining critical of, the elite, but I reckon his affection for the early days spent in rep and doing odd-jobs never left him. Maybe that’s the reason for Night School’s relative lack of guile. Ed Stambollouian shakes it up a bit though by having Abbie Finn pounding out rhythms on an on-stage drum kit when she is not playing Mavis and having the prodigiously talented Jessica Barden play Sally with a rudimentary ordinariness. No-one here is special, no-one here is either particularly good or bad and no-one here is judged. I could imagine that in the hands of a less talented cast the humour in the characters could come across as very stilted but I loved it.

I have to assume that Soutra Gilmour had, unbeknownst to me, visited the SE London home of my grandad Sid and grandma Lil in the 1960s, in order to secure inspiration for yet another pitch perfect set. Though not the night-club scene in Night School obviously. Mind you it wouldn’t surprise me at all if there was more to Sid’s younger days than met the eye. All I remember is his bottles of Pale Ale, him telling us kids to “sod off” if we came anywhere near him or his newspaper, a bladder-damaging procession of tea courtesy of Lil, an outside privy, wash-basins and shockingly overt racism.

Moonlight was actually the longest play HP wrote in his last three decades and tends to be dismissed thanks to its awkward and uber-cryptic structure. I disagree and reckon Lyndsey Turner has made a case for more frequent revival. Hard to be as ardent about Night School but committed actors made me laugh and I am very grateful for the opportunity to add it to the Pinter tick list.

https://athomehefeelslikeatourist.blog/2018/12/05/pinter-at-pinter-3-review/

https://athomehefeelslikeatourist.blog/2018/10/27/pinter-at-the-pinter-one-review/