Nicholas Hytner’s new production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” is notable for the casting of Gwendoline Christie (fan favorite Brienne of Tarth in HBO’s “Game of Thrones”) as the Fairy Queen but audience members who were expecting a traditional Titania may be surprised to find that many of her lines have been swapped with Oberon’s. It is Oliver Chris, as the Fairy King, who has the bulk of Titania’s delicious lines (“What angel wakes me from my flowery bed?” has never elicited more laughs from an audience)—and in a brilliant role reversal, it is his character that falls in love with the unfortunate Bottom. Despite the gender swap, the formidable Ms. Christie and the charming Mr. Chris, spar effectively, creating sparks that prove love is indeed a battlefield.
The story of the warring fairies is intertwined with the plotline of the court, whose Duke is about to celebrate nuptials with Hippolyta, a foreign queen. (Chris and Christie are double cast as Theseus and Hippolyta.) Prior to the wedding, the Duke must decide punishment for the willful Hermia, who refuses to enter into an arranged marriage with Demetrius and instead, wishes to marry her suitor Lysander. Best friend Helena and Demetrius follow the star-crossed lovers into the forest where they escape and hope to wed.
A wonderfully crafty and athletic David Moorst plays Puck, faithful servant to his fairy queen. He never misses a beat, even as he delivers Puck’s lines hanging upside down or in some contorted state. He serves as both a narrator and a stand-in for the highly engaged audience who is able to view the play through his eyes. In this production, the action of the play takes place on the floor of the theater, where set and actors are surrounded by audience members who have bought standing admission to the “pit.” The set pieces and platforms move around the audience fluidly (echoing the gender fluid themes of the play.)
Puck, as directed by Titania, sets into motion the events that lead Oberon to become infatuated with a transformed Bottom, who through enchantment now sports a donkey’s head. Enough cannot be said about Hammed Animashaun’s thoroughly original take on the role. His Bottom is entire guileless, sincere, and a total delight. I’ll admit that after seeing countless productions of “Midsummer,” it was a wonderful surprise to see such a fresh interpretation of the character. Hytner shrewdly allows this character to have his dignity and it’s almost tragic that he has to go back to his proletariat life after having been favored and spoiled by his royal paramour. In fact, Chris and Animashaun’s chemistry and repartee is so delightful that a small part of you ends up hoping that they will indeed end up together.
The four principals lead a tightly directed, enormously talented ensemble that features shape-shifting acrobats as the fairies (kudos to Movement Director Arlene Phillips and Lennin Nelson-McClure, who is listed as “circus captain.”) Add to this, four wonderfully earthy lovers, a set Rude Mechanicals of both genders (in uniform tracksuits to highlight their working-class status.) and a pit of 200 or so squealing audience members/extras and you have a raucously good time.
In addition to the four principals, other standouts include Isis Hainsworth’s earnest Hermia, Tessa Bonham Jones’ Helena, whose adroit handling of the verse provides lovely moments of levity, and Felicity Montagu, who is cast against type as Quince but is splendid as the mother hen tasked with corralling the unruly group of mechanicals.
It is clear the actors have been cast for both their Shakespearean chops and for their incredibly good comic skills, as the laughs never stop in this uproarious production. Hytner balances all the elements beautifully and the show is equal parts enchanted tale, comic romp and bohemian rave. This “Midsummer” ends with a euphoric dance party for cast and audience. Two moon balls are tossed around in a glorious, breathtaking visual that reminds us that even for a few hours, we can all be part of an intoxicating “Dream.”