I don't know what the collective noun for multiple productions of the same play on at the same time is - an overkill? - but there very definitely is one of those for A Midsummer's Night Dream this year. The Globe has one, Regent's Park has one, there's an outdoor touring version, there's a version at York's pop up Shakespeare's Rose theatre and, the one that's actually relevant for our purposes, The Bridge Theatre's immersive promenade version.
Those of you who were paying attention will recall that I was fully obsessed with The Bridge's first immersive Shakespeare - the brilliant, prescient and exciting Julius Caesar - last year. I maintain it's the finest Shakespearean production I've ever seen (and I genuinely can't watch any of the Boris Johnson vs Jeremy Hunt Tory leadership shit show without thinking of David Morrissey's Antony and Ben Whishaw's Brutus, though I'm not sure either would thank me for the comparison). I saw it three times, bought the merch and generally raved about it to all and sundry. For me, then, this MSND had a lot to prove. And it proves it with big sparkly bells on.
MSND reunites the creative team from Caesar, with Nicholas Hytner once again in the director's chair. Never a great purist when it comes to Shakespearean texts, Hytner's approach here is especially bold and I fucking love him for it. His biggest innovation is to swap the parts of Titania and Oberon, so that it's the fairy king who is bewitched and falls in love with Bottom. One of the things I don't usually like about MSND is that the women get a really raw deal and have essentially no agency of their own. They're too busy being bewitched and/or stolen by the men to get much of a look in. In this production the central role that Titania gets to play really changes the emphasis. Suddenly it's a woman doing the bewitching and a woman in control of much of the action. This makes the play feel totally different and instantly far more modern.
The text is updated too. There are plentiful modern jokes and references, none of which feel at all forced. Which they really should in truth. It feels like a lot of these are ad libs that the cast developed themselves, but whether they actually are or not is sort of irrelevant. The key thing is they work - and they're very very funny. Some of them are very silly (the Rude Mechanicals group selfie) some of them are character building (Puck’s chatter with the audience) some of them are pretty meta (Theseus’ commentary on the play within a play). All of them are hilarious. Admittedly I’m no MSND super fan, but this is by far the funniest version I’ve ever seen.
Thanks to the thoroughly modern, immersive staging it’s also the funnest version. Honestly, I have never had more straightforward fun in a theatre than this. The production, with genius Bunny Christie in charge of the design again, is a big, sparkly, magical joy. The immersive aspect is used much more than in Caesar, which is to say if you’re standing expect to clock up a fair few steps. There are more bits of stage that pop up, and drop down, more bits that move around. It’s exquisitely done, technically and aesthetically. Christina Cunningham’s costumes appear to have come from the chicest and most fabulous Pride party (Titania’s wardrobe and Hippolyta’s wedding look, designed by Giles Deacon, are also stunning). Arlene Phillips’ eclectic post-Strictly career hits some kind of a peak with beautiful movement work, both on the stage and hanging above it. Paul Arditti’s sound and Grant Olding’s music are great. And the use of modern music - Beyoncé! Dizzee Rascal! - is inspired. You must stand for this show and you must get fully involved in the ensuing mad party you’ll find yourself in.
Cast-wise, this production is also a gem. Less obviously starry than Caesar, it’s an utter joy to see such a diverse cast perform and with so many young actors getting the chance to shine. As an ensemble they are exceptional, arguably the best cast around in London at the moment. And the best thing about watching them? They are clearly loving this show as much as the audience are. Their enthusiasm for it is contagious.
Gwendoline Christie is the Big Name involved here, and she is excellent as a mischievous Titania and pleasingly unimpressed and unruffled Hippolyta. Her command of the space is really excellent. Oliver Chris’ Theseus and Oberon are even better. Chris has an amazing sense of comedy and can play the most ridiculous scenes with the straightest of faces in a way that is cheek-achingly funny. He is exceptional as the love struck Oberon and his deadpan asides (as Theseus) during the Rude Mechanicals play within a play made me literally weep with joy; never has the phrase ‘it’s immersive’ been more perfectly used. Hammed Animashaun is an adorably inept and big hearted Bottom who is also brilliantly funny. His punchy, modern delivery is great fun. David Moorst is a devilishly naughty, campy, Yorkshire Puck who steals many scenes. That he learned all of his aerialist skills just for this show is amazing.
This production is a gift from the theatrical gods (very specifically Dionysus I think). Not only is it brilliant, modern Shakespeare that pushes at the technical boundaries of what theatre can be it’s also just a fucking great night out and a huge, huge laugh. Come for the Bard, stay for the Beyoncé dance party.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream is at The Bridge until 31st August.
I paid £25 to stand in the pit for this show. You shouldn't see it any other way.