“A Midsummer Night’s Dream” can be many things. There are earthy “Dreams,” airy “Dreams,” saucy “Dreams” and sweet “Dreams.” It’s Shakespeare’s most malleable play.
Nicholas Hytner’s new staging strives to set itself apart, plunging its immersive audience into a festival-style fairy kingdom and casting the ethereal, white-blonde Gwendoline Christie (fresh off “Game of Thrones”) as a fairy queen. It is, nonetheless, the sort of “Dream” you forget the second it finishes. Open your eyes and it’s gone.
This is a melange of a “Midsummer Night’s Dream,” several shows rolled into one. There’s a forest floor of cast-iron beds entangled in plastic ivy and felt flowers to suggest slumber, and a canopy of circus artists in skintight sequins and glitter to summon the carnivalesque. It has a Pride-punk of a Puck — David Moorst gurns and ticks in his ripped jeans and torn tank top — who serves two bona fide fantastical fairy masters. It’s never clear: Is this metaphor or magic? Forest, festival or fantasia?
Hytner’s strength with Shakespeare has always been creating credible worlds. He stitches societies together with hierarchies and protocol — Hamlet’s surveillance state, Julius Caesar’s faltering order — and, indeed, his Athens is immediately comprehensible: an ultra-patriarchal system, men in sharp suits, women in cloth bonnets, very “Handmaid’s Tale.” Oliver Chris’s sternly imperious king keeps his bride-to-be in a box: Christie’s seething Hippolyta is the spoils of war. It’s a world where fathers select their sons-in-law and women are reduced to property. Little wonder that, having pushed back, Isis Hainsworth’s headstrong Hermia elopes with her preferred husband-to-be.
The forest, however, becomes altogether blurrier: neither one thing, nor the other. It changes people’s behavior, that much is clear, and its spirit is one of gender equality. As the fairy first couple, Chris and Christie don’t fight furiously over their Indian boy; they flirt, wheedle, cajole and joke with each other before, regretfully, going their separate ways. Their relationship is respectful and well-matched and, by switching the roles so that Christie’s Titania drugs her fairy king, Hytner wisely resets their power dynamic.
Puck’s flower-power upsets the balance. If, ordinarily, Athens’ men are in control, they lose it entirely when completely loved-up. Kit Young’s Lysander loses all his leather-jacketed swagger for prostrate subservience; Paul Adeyefa ditches his detachment in a fit of pie-eyed swooning. Indeed, the second Puck pushes his petals their way, the two men lock eyes, then lips: they hold no sway over their own desires. Ditto Chris’s macho Oberon who, dosed up, dotes on Hammed Animashaun’s blokey Bottom.
The point might be to show that sexuality isn’t fixed, to stress that attraction exists on a spectrum, but the side-effects are unfortunate. Hytner ends up making homosexuality the butt of a bad joke: Chris undergoes a personality transplant as Oberon, erupting into a burst of campery that culminates in a bunny dance to Beyonce, a bubble bath for two and a lot of sniggering about two straight men having — and even enjoying — sex. It utterly undercuts the intention, equating homosexuality to humiliation.
The root cause is that Hytner’s staging pulls two ways at once, part play and part party. The first asks us to invest in its fiction; the second wants us present in the room, and its impulse is to crowdplease at the expense of the script. There are a slew of anachronistic comic asides, mugging Mechanicals, singalong numbers and circus acts that don’t come close to mustering either spectacle or festival spirit. Bunny Christie’s plasticky forest and Christina Cunningham’s spangled sprites all look rather cheap. It’s all a bit cringey, like your dad dancing to Dua Lipa. Hytner’s last attempt at immersive theatre, “Julius Caesar,” cast us as citizens of Rome, then ramped up the thriller tension to cover the cracks. Here, where something exuberant is required, we’re left to flounder around fairyland.