A Midsummer Night’s Dream is one of Shakespeare’s best-known and most-performed plays. Nicholas Hytner’s adaptation is a spirited spectacle (pun intended). We see fairies swinging on silks, beds moving through space, and parts of the stage rise up from the floor and disappear. The staging is as immersive as it is impressive—giant disco balls bob in the stalls, characters ask the audience for their phones, and return it after taking a selfie. Puck, played by the agile and astonishing David Moorst, even wades through the stalls complaining about Londoners.
The adaptation is approximately two and a half hours long, but it keeps us busy. Hytner does with this adaptation what Shakespeare did with his original—locate it in an intricate cultural maze which the audience must keep threading.
In the beginning, we see Hippolyta (Gwendoline Christie) in a glass case—an obvious trophy for Theseus (Oliver Chris) and his future wife. The costumes are straight out of The Handmaid’s Tale, but right for the toxic masculinity on display by Theseus and Egeus (Kevin McMonagle).
Hytner implies that the fairies are not a parallel reality but a dream state, or they may represent figments of a psychotic imagination, where Christie is Titania, and Chris is Oberon. Interestingly, the roles of the Fairy King and Queen are swapped. But other than the minor happiness of a woman being in charge, this swap does not help examine gender politics with greater rigor or showcase the nuances in Shakespeare’s text. This is regrettable because while the play is one of the bard’s great and popular comedies, and remains fascinating because of the taut balance it constructs between violence and desire, man and woman, and convention and anarchy.
Nowhere is this more apparent that in the forest scenes between the lovers. Lysander (Kit Young) finds it easy to threaten Hermia (Isis Hainsworth) with violence when he is under Puck’s spell. Similarly, Helena (Tessa Bonham Jones) is threatened by Demetrius (Paul Adeyefa). She complains that he promised, ‘to strike me, spurn me, nay kill me too (Act 3, Scene 2).’
The adaptation asks weighty questions about identity and love: who are we outside the walls of the city, enchanted out of reality, alone at midnight? The play’s gravitas is balanced at this point, and others, by the lyricism of the text that helps create an ironic distance for the audience.
In creating queer desire between Demetrius and Lysander, and Helena and Hermia, Hytner explores the idea of non-binary sexuality. We catch a glimpse of this again at the end, when the same-sex pairs, married to their loves, cast longing glances at each other, as do Oberon and Bottom (Hammed Animashaun). Once again, rather than inspiring us to question such this alarmingly labile desire, the adaptation is content to elicit laughter.
The play-within-a-play trope is a great mashup of Elizabethan masques with Britain’s Got Talent. We can laugh at the actors – the Rude Mechanicals, and the observers (the courtiers and audience), who have become complicit in the performance. It is imagination that completes the spell that the company is trying to cast.
It may be that we have been dreaming together. As an aerial Puck – who might stand for both playwright and director, tells us
If we shadows have offended,
Think but this, and all is mended—
That you have but slumbered here
While these visions did appear. (Act 5, Scene 1)
And that is one might argue A Midsummer Night’s Dream when both the ghosts and fairies come out to play in our collective consciousness. The play is a dream, yes, but one of darkness. As Puck says, ‘[W]e fairies, that do run/… from the presence of the sun. Following darkness like a dream… (Act 5, Scene 1).’
One wishes Hytner had more clearly articulated this vision. However, as a spectacle of whimsy and frolic, this adaptation is second to none. And makes a fine choice for NT at Home to end Pride Month.