You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

London Theater Review: ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’

Nicholas Hytner's immersive fairy kingdom fails to fly, despite an imposing and otherworldly Gwendoline Christie.

Paul Adeyefa, Hammed Animashaun, Charlotte Atkinson, Tessa Bonham Jones, Oliver Chris, Gwendoline Christie, Jermaine Freeman, Isis Hainsworth, Chipo Kureya, Francis Lovehall, Ami Metcalf, Kevin McMonagle, Jamie-Rose Monk, Felicity Montagu, David Moorst, Lennin Nelson-McClure, Rachel Tolzman, Jay Webb, Kit Young.

2 hours 45 minutes

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.

Popular on Variety

London Theater Review: 'A Midsummer Night's Dream'

Bridge Theatre, London; 900 seats; £95 ($115) top. Opened June 11,  2019. Reviewed June 18. Running time: 2 HOURS, 45 MIN.

Production: A London Theatre Company production of a play in five acts by William Shakespeare

Creative: Directed by Nicholas Hytner; Production design, Bunny Christie; costume design, Christina Cunningham; movement, Arlene Phillips; lighting, Bruno Poet; sound, Paul Arditti; composition, Grant Olding.

Cast: Paul Adeyefa, Hammed Animashaun, Charlotte Atkinson, Tessa Bonham Jones, Oliver Chris, Gwendoline Christie, Jermaine Freeman, Isis Hainsworth, Chipo Kureya, Francis Lovehall, Ami Metcalf, Kevin McMonagle, Jamie-Rose Monk, Felicity Montagu, David Moorst, Lennin Nelson-McClure, Rachel Tolzman, Jay Webb, Kit Young.

More Legit

  • The Laugh Factory Gives Back with

    The Laugh Factory Gives Back With Meals and Programs

    They say that everyone has a story to tell. It’s become Jamie Masada’s mission to help some people learn how to tell theirs. For 35 years, the founder of the Laugh Factory has made his main location on Sunset Boulevard home to a comedy camp for kids ages 9 to 16. While all are welcome [...]

  • Jamie Masada Dave Chapelle Laugh Factory

    Jamie Masada Reflects on 40 Years of the Laugh Factory

    When Jamie Masada was a young kid, growing up poor and Jewish in Iran, his father told him that, because he had been a good boy, he would take the son to see a moving picture. Masada didn’t know what that meant, but he went with his father to the shopping district at night. They [...]

  • Lungs review

    London Theater Review: 'Lungs' Starring Claire Foy and Matt Smith

    What, to ask the perennial theatergoer’s question, is Duncan Macmillan’s “Lungs” about? It’s about climate change, isn’t it? No, it’s a play about deciding whether to have a baby. Actually, like his earlier success “People, Places, Things,” in which Macmillan balanced a personal story with a depiction of addiction, it’s a juggling of two subjects [...]

  • Bella Bella review

    Off Broadway Review: Harvey Fierstein's 'Bella Bella'

    Harvey Fierstein is one busy guy. A Broadway institution with four Tony Awards for acting (“Torch Song Trilogy,” “Hairspray”) and playwriting (“Torch Song Trilogy,” “La Cage aux Folles”), he has also written everything from teleplays (“The Wiz Live!”, “Hairspray Live!”) to an award-winning children’s book, “The Sissy Duckling.” His movie work includes “Mrs. Doubtfire” and [...]

  • Soft Power Jeanine Tesori

    Listen: Jeanine Tesori and the 'Soft Power' of Musicals to Change Minds

    The title of “Soft Power,” the new play-cum-musical by playwright David Henry Hwang and composer Jeanine Tesori, refers to cultural influence — in this case the cultural influence of America on China, and of China on the U.S. According to Tesori, the term might also describe the force that musical theater itself can exert in [...]

  • Jane Alexander James Cromwell

    Jane Alexander, James Cromwell to Star in Broadway's 'Grand Horizons'

    Jane Alexander and James Cromwell will head up the Broadway cast of Bess Wohl’s “Grand Horizons.” The two Oscar nominees will star as Bill and Nancy, a couple whose five-decade-long relationship unravels when they move to a retirement community. After Nancy decides she wants a divorce, her family life is sent into disarray. The show [...]

  • Chasing Rainbows review

    New Jersey Theater Review: Judy Garland Bio 'Chasing Rainbows'

    Judy Garland’s voice was unparalleled and rich, an emotive contralto that lasted long into her later years with a loud and winning showiness to go with its melodramatic nuances. But that voice concealed a troubled backstory, as the woman born Frances Ethel Gumm toted the baggage of a closeted gay father, an ugly duckling’s insecurity [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content