Oliver Chris

A Midsummer Night’s Dream

27/06/20

National Theatre Live

Watching immersive theatre via a screen, especially a small screen, is always going to be oxymoronic. My first thought, as Egeus (Kevin McMonagle) drags his errant daughter, Hermia (Isis Hainsworth), through the Bridge Theatre’s standing audience to face the judgement of Theseus (Oliver Chris) is, ‘Oh, this isn’t going to work…’ By which I mean, this isn’t going to work for me. Because sometimes you really do have to be there.

This production, directed by Nicholas Hytner and Ross MacGibbon, is all about the live experience. I can only imagine how exhilarating it must have been in that auditorium, at once spectator and spectacle. Instead I’m at home (for the millionth night running), sitting on my sofa, watching via a computer.

It’s still very good, and I soon get over feeling distanced. I suppose we’ve all had to get over a lot stranger things in recent times. The chilling opening scene – where father-of-the-year Egeus seeks permission to put his daughter to death if she refuses to marry a man she doesn’t love – highlights the importance of the midsummer madness in the woods. Away from the strict patriarchal rule of Athens, the characters are free to explore their deepest desires, able to give rein to their true selves.

The story – for those who need reminding – is of four young lovers who run away into the forest. Also present is a group of amateur actors, seeking a quiet place to rehearse their latest play, and – of course – the resident fairies, who view these human interlopers as playthings, to be teased and manipulated just for fun. In this version, Oberon (Chris) and Titania (Gwendoline Christie)’s roles are switched, with Titania orchestrating the action.

Bunny Christie’s design is bold and daring, all flying beds and shifting green floors. The audience is called upon to move with the action, to pass a parachute above their heads, to dance; they become the forest’s shadows, the Athenian court. I’ve seen a lot of immersive theatre, but rarely anything as well-integrated as this, where the audience action feels purposeful and not just grafted on. The beds are especially clever, highlighting the dual themes of sex and dreaming; it’s not subtle, but why should it be? This is not a subtle play.

There’s not a bum note here, but there are some standout performances, not least from Hammed Animashaun, who plays Bottom as a wide-eyed enthusiast rather than a bumptious fool. He’s utterly endearing, so I’m delighted with Hytner’s decision to make his drug-fuelled tryst with Oberon a tender one, ill-advised but not risible. David Moorst’s Puck is also a delight, all twisty movements and Mancunian patter.

In short, I wish I’d been there; a show like this reminds me exactly why I love live theatre. But seeing it like this is much, much better than not seeing it at all.

4.6 stars

Susan Singfield

Twelfth Night

23/04/20

National Theatre Live

I’m never sure about Twelfth Night. Yes, it’s a perfectly constructed play, with a rich cast of characters and some of Shakespeare’s most profound and memorable lines. But I’m always pulled up short by the identity swap stuff, because it’s so silly. And, dare I say it, over-used in the bard’s comedies. Yes, I know he’s a genius. But come on. It defies credulity.

Still, major plot quibbles aside, this latest offering from the NT Live’s lockdown programme is nothing short of glorious. Director Simon Godwin really revels in the play’s theme of gender fluidity, and it makes perfect sense in this context to have a female Malvolia (the marvellous Tamsin Greig), Feste (Doon Mackichan) and Fabia (Imogen Doel).

For those who need a memory jog or who are new to the play, this is the story of twins Viola (Tamara Lawrance) and Sebastian (Daniel Ezra), washed up on the shores of Illyria following a shipwreck. Each believes the other dead, and sets out alone to seek shelter.

To Viola, disguising herself as a boy seems the safest bet, so she changes her clothes and calls herself Cesario. So-disguised, she finds work as a messenger for Duke Orsino (Oliver Chris), and is soon engaged in the peculiar business of attempting to woo the Countess Olivia (Phoebe Fox) for him. Unfortunately, Olivia falls for Cesario instead – and, to complicate matters further, Viola herself is smitten with the Duke. Add Olivia’s unruly uncle Toby (Tim McMullen) and his drunken entourage into the mix, and it’s easy enough to see why the prissy, order-loving Malvolia becomes so peevish and out of sorts.

The standout here is clearly Greig’s Malvolia; this is a star turn. Her obsessive, precise nature is beautifully detailed, and the frenzied abandon that follows when she falls for the revellers’ trick – instructing her to dress in yellow stockings to win Olivia’s favour – allows us a glimpse beneath Malvolia’s repressed exterior, as her secret desires are cruelly exposed. Her abject humiliation is genuinely heartbreaking.

But there’s plenty to admire besides Greig: McMullen’s interpretation of Toby (all louche and dissipated, like an ageing rock star) is original and works well with the script, while Daniel Rigby’s man-bunned Andrew Aguecheek makes a perfect comic foil.

The set, by Soutra Gilmour, is inspired: dominated by a huge rotating staircase, that turns to reveal a vast range of locations, all cleverly depicted with a few deft strokes.

This is a lovely, light production, with both exquisite foolery and emotional depth. I reckon I’ll even let the false identity stuff go. Against the odds, they make it work.

4.4 stars

Susan Singfield