In case you're unaware, The National Theatre has been streaming plays as both a fundraiser and a way to keep the arts alive while all the theaters are shut down and everyone is at home. Think of it as a "Greatest Hits of Recent Years" – they had a 2014 performance of A Streetcar Named Desire, a bang-up performance of Coriolanus, and this week, their YouTube channel is home to a performance of 2019' A Midsummer Night's Dream, filmed at the Bridge Theater.
This production has a little bit of everything: music, a modern twist, original verse, gender-bending, a gay ass (well, more than one, actually), and circus stunts. If at least one of those things doesn't bowl you over, I'm not sure A Midsummer Night's Dream is the Shakespeare play for you. Personal taste aside, the production is one of the more clever I've seen, and I've seen some pretty neat stagings of this play. True, there are no living trees or nipple tassels (one was a burlesque production), but the modular stage, role-swapping, aerial arts, and the sheer gay-ness of this particular production more than make this one of my favorite versions I've seen.
Now, yes, Midsummer is a production very dear to my heart; we did it in my high school. But that doesn't mean that it's some musty old flowery play, even for those without a connection to the story. In case you're unaware of the plot, it centers around two sets of lovers in the woods and the meddling of the fairy world in both human affairs and their own. As it's a comedy, hilarity ensues and of course, the romance endures – hey, he did write some great rom-com.
Our fearless narrator is Puck, a mischievous creature played brilliantly by David Moorst. He is the comic relief, yes, and they do tend to steal the stage and charm the audience (especially in a role that breaks the fourth wall and encourages the actor to play with the audience), but allow me a moment to gush about his particular portrayal. He's in an aerial swing (fabric suspended from the ceiling by both ends, so it creates a U shape that the performer can move around in/on), and not only does he move with such agility and grace, he does so whilst inverting himself upside down and twisting about in the air…literally while delivering Shakespeare monologues perfectly. If you've ever tried to hang upside down while reciting the Bard, you know exactly how difficult it is to pull it off as effortlessly as Moorst does.
Perhaps one of the better-known members of this cast is Gwendoline Christie in the role of Titania/Hippolyta. She and Oliver Chris as Oberon/Theseus make a delightful pair, playing off each other and deepening both pairings by playing both human and fairy couples in the show. That's not where the casting changes get interesting though: the roles of Titania and Oberon are swapped, making her the jealous lover and him the one in love with Bottom. Let me tell you, the Oberon and Bottom scenes are nothing short of hilarious and perfect. Give me big, gay, circus Shakespeare, or give me death. Also, I believe it would be a national travesty to give Christie a role where she's made to look foolish by a man. She is at the whims of no man (or fairy king), as it should be. All hail Titania, HBIC.
I could go on and on about how each and every member of this cast was absolute perfection in their roles, but then we'd be here all day. Everyone was wonderful, but we have to move on. A full cast list is available on the National Theatre's website. The two couples had amazing comedic timing and inflections; the fairies all brought enormous physicality to the stage, and the acting troupe (in the show within a show) were all spot-on and served up everything with a tongue-in-cheek attitude. However, there are so many other points of this show to talk about.
The Modular Staging Brings the Audience and Actors Together Like Never Before
The stage itself is rigged in several parts, and it also is on a lift that raises it from being a part of the floor where the audience is standing to stage-level. When first seen, Hippolyta is in a large clear box, visually demonstrating the isolation and attitude towards women in the scene and Athens. The Midsummer set is minimal, with beds being nearly the only piece of furniture utilized, to further the dream-like aspect of the show, no doubt, and to beautiful effect. They also often act as a safety mat for the aerial stunts, which makes them blend into the set (because they are the set), making the stunts that much more effective and keep you sucked into the illusion of the fairy world. It's like Shakespeare performance art, but without being pretentious and somehow with twice as much glitter and music. Oh, the music!
The Modern Twists Added to The Original Prose Without Being Distracting
What do Beyonce and Shakespeare have in common? No, it's not a joke – it's this play! That's right, there are selfies, cheeky nods to modern society, and of course, modern music. Now, I know what you're thinking, "Shakespeare can't really be Shakespeare without dutiful actors in drab period-correct costumes reciting their lines all in perfect high London accents." I appreciate the purists' point of view, I do, but the reason why these plays have endured all these years is that they speak to society and poke fun at the human condition and the way things are. If that's best achieved nowadays by updating things a little, I am all for it. Now, a little modern flair is a good thing, but productions can certainly suffer too much of a good thing. Luckily, that is not the case here as the modern tailored suits and pajamas felt more Peter Pan and served to only elevate the magical quality of the story that much more.
Comedy is Paramount in a Classical Comedy Especially
True to form, comedies are written and staged as funny. Do all of Shakespeare's jokes make it through to modern audiences as is? Not quite. The trick to this lies in the intonation and delivery of the prose. Now, some may be for modernizing the dialog to make it more accessible to which I say poppycock. So how is a play written and spoken in an old flowery language still as laugh-out-loud hilarious in 2020 as it was back in 1595? Easy: the actors may be saying the words on the page, but they deliver them with the exact tone, body language, and feeling they would use to say it in modern speak. Sometimes the characters' thoughts even leak out in modern speak, in the case of an exclamation or a particularly shocking reaction. This is another example of modernizing, however, it fits in more with the comedic aspect of it as the show owes so much to the timing and delivery of the actors' performances.
This is perhaps the most apparent in the acting troupe – they're all in bright colored jumpsuits, with a badge as to which character in their play they are assigned. Their slightly odd costume choice works as a blank canvas for which comedy plays so perfectly on. The simplicity of everything else allows the actors comedic timing to absolutely shine through. Nick Bottom, as played by Hammed Animashaun, is the absurdist, overtly comedic character of the troupe, but that doesn't mean the others don't shine too. The cast has not a single actor in it who is not well-versed in the comedy of their role and the entire play at large.
All in all, Midsummer felt like a weird, trippy, ADHD fever dream – which is exactly how this production should feel. I mean, it literally has "dream" in the title! Titular feelings aside, this staging is by far one of the more intimate I've seen, despite watching it on my computer a year later, thousands of miles away. That is the endearing legacy of the Bard, and that is what the cast and crew brought to that stage every night. It's a different, slightly surreal take that leaves you wondering if "this weak and idle thing, no more yielding but a dream." This dream is available to watch until July 2 on the National Theatre's YouTube page.