‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’
“Next summer will mark the fiftieth anniversary of Peter Brook’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Royal Shakespeare Company,” writes Kate Maltby. “Epithets like “landmark” or, worse, “seminal” have a tendency to attach themselves to mentions of Brook’s production—in fact, it was irreverent, playful, delightfully topsy-turvy (the fairies spent most of their time hanging upside down on trapeze swings). The writer and critic Donald Richie, who had worked closely with Brook, described the production as a parable of maturation, sexual and social. Overseeing it all, actor Alan Howard’s Theseus doubled in the role of Oberon, guru-cum-ringmaster, guiding his subjects through the adventure-playground of puberty and safely into adulthood.
“Nearly a half-century later, Brook’s Dream still hangs heavy over British theatre. Nicholas Hytner, who ran London’s state-subsidized National Theatre for twelve years until 2015 and is now the impresario of the Bridge Theatre, his own commercial theater complex opposite the Tower of London, has chosen to tackle Brook’s legacy head on. His new production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream is both homage and exorcism. Fairyland is again full of aerial artistes, but here they tumble down white bedsheets into a black box of a stage, inverting Brook’s famous white space. The Athens woodland is once more a dreamscape where Theseus’s and Hippolyta’s suppressed fantasies can fly free—but this being 2019, it is Hippolyta/Titania who takes command. Hytner’s production clearly sets out to queer Brook’s heterosexual tradition. Disappointingly, however, it relies on the oldest of regressive sexual tropes to get there.
“Post-feminist productions of Dream tend to emphasize the nonconsensual nature of Hippolyta’s marriage to Theseus, and, not to be outdone, Hytner goes full Handmaid’s Tale. This Athens is a puritanical and patriarchal cult, with Hermia and the caged Hippolyta wearing uniform headscarves, while Oliver Chris, recently Prince William in Mike Bartlett’s Broadway hit King Charles III, stalks around giving his best Commander Waterford impression. (Hermia, finally resolving to flee the city, rips her hair free as if renouncing an enforced hijab.) But Hippolyta has her revenge in the forest, where she keeps Titania’s name but steals almost all of Oberon’s lines and action from Shakespeare’s texts. It is Titania who makes merry with David Moorst’s Puck, while Oberon is tricked into bedding Bottom (Hammed Animashaun), finally unleashing his wildest sexual desires.
“Hence the progressive’s problem. Hytner—who does happen to be gay—clearly presents his Dream as a joyful celebration of queer liberation. Lest we miss the message, an enormous rainbow Pride flag flutters over the audience during the finale’s mass dance party. The female lovers and the male lovers all get their chances at a same-sex clinch. But the heart of Hippolyta’s revenge on Theseus, the man who leers his rape threats at her while she stands caged, is to humiliate him in his guise as Oberon by exposing him as the lover of a man and—in an endearing performance by Animashaun—a black man at that. Should we be rooting for her gay-shaming gambit?”
For more information, visit bridgetheatre.co.uk.
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