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.

Young Marx at the Bridge Theatre review ****

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Young Marx

Bridge Theatre, 1st November 2017

Let me add to the chorus of theatre lovers telling you how wonderful the new Bridge Theatre is. Cracking location by the river (Thames obvs) with a view of Tower Bridge. Wide open foyer space with a long bar for those who fancy a tipple. Pretty comfy seats in the auditorium with, what seemed to me, great sight-lines from wherever you choose to perch. More urinals in the gents than you could shake a stick at. (I appreciate this disclosure is somewhat unsavoury but theatre loos matter). All in all a mighty fine addition to the London culturescape.

Nick Hytner and co-founder Nick Starr have kicked off with an ambitious season which, from the sound of the plays in the pipeline, is set to continue. There were high hopes for this production of Young Marx, and, by and large, they have been realised. The last time co-writers, Richard Bean and Clive Coleman came together with Mr Hytner as director was for Great Britain, which went down pretty well. (I failed to get through it though had a pretty good excuse for leaving). And, of course Mr Hytner and Mr Bean had a moderate success in the past at the NT with a little comedy entitled One Man, Two Guvnors.

Young Mark is no One Man, Two Guvnors, that would have been too much to hope for, but it is still a very entertaining romp through the life of the young Karl Marx and his compatriot Friedrich Engels. Messrs Bean and Coleman don’t stint on the comedy, visual and oral, and the whole does come across as a series of vignettes with no grand dramatic arc, but it is still well worth the entrance fee. There are plenty of tickets left at prices comparable to the old workhorses of the West End, but for a better play in far more comfortable surroundings.

Rory Kinnear plays the eponymous genius. Now on his day, his Iago in Mr Hytner’s NT Othello in 2013 was about as good as stage acting gets, Mr Kinnear is peerless. Yet recent outings have been a little underpowered, the Trial at the Young Vic and his Macheath in the NT Threepenny Opera. He is back on fine form here. Marx, before bessie Engels went back to his Dad’s Manchester factory and provided the financial security of a stipend, was notoriously impecunious. This, together with his fondness for an ale, provides the backbone of the humour. We see him pawning family heirlooms, dodging creditors and German spies, evading the nascent Old Bill (there is a nice line in copper gags) and arguing with the other emigre revolutionaries that populated 1850s Soho. We also see the goading of his long suffering aristocratic wife Jenny and the overly close relationship with maid Nym. We see Marx as doting father and as inspiring rhetorician. Most of all though we see the close, and ultimately world-changing, friendship with Engels. Our Fred was no mean writer and thinker himself but he devoted his life to what he say as the superior intellect of big Karl. Marx must have wound him up something rotten in these early years but the mutual love and respect (“Marx and Engels, Engels and Marx” like some musical hall duet) is there on the stage.

Oliver Chris as the raffish Engels is the equal of Rory Kinnear’s more estuarine Marx. Nancy Carol’s desperate Jenny and Laura Elphinstone’s loyal Nym are the equal of the chaps both dramatically and intellectually which is a fine touch. The rest of the cast is bang on the money. Mr Hytner has wheeled out the A list for the set, Mark Thompson, lighting, Mark Henderson, sound, Paul Arditti, and music, Grant Olding. That’s why the production looks and sounds great. Beneath a silhouetted panorama of the London cityscape is a giant brick box, a brick building almost, which revolves to supply exterior and interior scenes, notably the cramped Marx household (just two rooms), upstairs in the the Red Lion and the reading room of the British Library. At one point we are transported to a frosty morning on Hampstead Heath as Marx duels with rival August von Willich (Nicholas Burns). The lighting is excellent.

So, all in all, this is a very superior production. As you might expect Mr Hytner’s direction is as energetic as the text of Messrs Bean and Colman. The gags come thick and fast, including some well wrought plays on Marxian concepts such as use/exchange value, alienation, capital accumulation, dialectical materialism and the like. Sometimes the humour is a little obvious, a bit Carry On if you like, but I think this can be forgiven. The farce elements are never overdone, the fight scenes stay the right side of slapstick. The whole thing is a little episodic, though to be fair these episodes from Marx’s life in London, which have been little embellished, are sufficiently entertaining to justify inclusion, and the lurch to tragedy near the end is a bit disconcerting, though again would have been hard to leave out. It might have been nice to have a couple more serious monologues from Marx and Engels, to create a little more message, though the scene where Engels lectures Marx on the plight of Manchester factory workers is arresting.

Minor quibbles though. This is a rollicking debut for the Bridge venture. I cannot wait for the forthcoming Julius Caesar. Nick Hytner directing again. Ben Whishaw, Michelle Fairley, David Morrissey and David Calder in the lead roles. And for 25 quid you can be one of the citizens in this promenade production. Sounds brilliant.