Not long after I arrived in Britain, I got lost in Athens. Or rather, I was wandering through a surreal suburb of the city—a very green place, filled with beds and half-dressed people who seemed as confused as I was.
None of them, it appeared, were quite sure whether they were awake or asleep. There was a distinct feeling of danger in the air, as there usually is when order melts into chaos. At the same time, there was no denying that this was exactly the place that most of them wanted—and perhaps needed—to be.
Such is the disorienting, delighting landscape that has been conjured for the Bridge Theatres hit production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. As directed by Nicholas Hytner, this immersive interpretation of one of Shakespeare’s most performed plays is allowing theatregoers to escape the harsh British midsummer of 2019, with its floods and heat waves and sense of a nation unmoored by Brexit.
In a moment when nothing seems fixed in a country that has always prided itself on its anchoring traditions, this “Midsummer” lets Londoners feel in control by losing control. If they choose (and they should, if they have a decent sense of balance and sturdy legs), audience members may stand—and walk and occasionally gambol—on the stage for the nearly three hours of the production.
This “Dream” was the second show I saw in London. The night before I had been at the London Palladium for a widely acclaimed revival of Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, a musical I thought I never needed to see again. For that matter, I’d been wondering if I wanted to take in yet another Midsummer Night’s Dream.
But these productions turned out to be ideal fare for a battered soul in an advanced state of jet lag. And it occurred to me that, even before I set foot on a plane, I’d been feeling jet-lagged all summer—discombobulated, bleary, apprehensive.
Though I’m not about to equate Rice and Lloyd Webber with Shakespeare (I’m not that jet-lagged), I found myself unexpectedly misty-eyed at both shows, as if some inner pressure valve had been opened. And I was reminded that sometimes a few hours at the theatre, whether silly or profound (or both, as in the case of “Dream”), can do as much good as a week’s vacation.
Joseph, based on the Old Testament tale of the boy in rainbow-hued outerwear who was nearly done in by his rivalrous brothers, was created more than 50 years ago. It’s a slight, bouncy little piece of story theatre (its first professional incarnation was just half an hour long) that has expanded over the years into a bloated, family-friendly spectacle that often has urbane grown-ups bolting for the bar.
This latest version, directed by Laurence Connor, is big, all right, but in a gleeful, giddy way that matches its environs. The Palladium has been the setting for deluxe variety shows since the 1920s, with diverse headliners who have included the Three Stooges and Kathy Griffin, Frank Sinatra and Elton John, Judy Garland and Rufus Wainwright doing Judy Garland.
Connor, who did a fine job directing Lloyd Webber’s School of Rock, has appropriately conceived his “Joseph” in that music-hall tradition. It’s a warm-weather equivalent of a Christmas pantomime, with performers (including a multicast chorus of children) dressing up in deliberately hokey costumes, cutting vaudevillian capers and warbling insidiously tuneful, pastiche ditties that stick to the memory liked chewed bubble gum.
Its ensemble strategically mixes elements that would have been familiar to Palladium audiences of yore. There is the fresh-faced, stardom-bound ingénue (the appealing newcomer Jac Yarrow, who sings with the whispery sincerity expected of Lloyd Webber heroes); the sentimental old favorite (the pop star Jason Donovan, who played Joseph on the same stage in 1991, here as a scene-stealing Pharaoh) and the knock-’em-dead marquee star.
That last role is assumed by the infinitely talented Sheridan Smith (an Olivier winner for Legally Blonde and a BAFTA winner for Mrs. Biggs on television), who here plays the Narrator, overseeing the story while assuming many roles. Smith belts, hoofs and mugs like Liza Minnelli in her prime.
She sometimes pushes the limits of crowd-courting charm. But she is expert at enlisting the audience in the complicity of spirited make-believe. “It’s still me!” she says exultantly, every time she shows up in a new disguise, a fake beard or an eye patch. Heaven help me, but I fell for it all and am even willing to forgive having Rice’s singsong lyrics lodged in my head for the rest of the year. (“I look handsome, I look smart / I’m a walking work of art.”)
At the Bridge Theatre, the role-playing is conducted on a deeper level. This is a fluid “Dream” in which the lines of sexual attraction and control melt and morph. As is often the case, the same performers who portray Theseus, duke of Athens, and his betrothed, Hippolyta, also play the fairy king and queen, Oberon and Titania.
In this instance, though, Hytner has reassigned crucial parts of the text, so that it’s Titania (the formidable Gwendoline Christie, of Game of Thrones) who transforms the would-be thespian Bottom the Weaver (the deeply likable Hammed Animashaun) into an ass, with the assistance of her fairy minion, Puck (David Moorst, terrific). And it’s a bewitched Oberon (a very dashing, very funny Oliver Chris) who falls head over heels for said ass.
Since we have previously encountered Christie as Hippolyta, an unhappy captive bride-to-be, her dominance as Titania takes on that aspect of sweet revenge that dreams can sometimes provide. And the play’s runaway mortal lovers (Isis Hainsworth, Tessa Bonham Jones, Paul Adeyefa and Kit Young) pair off in dreamily disconcerting combinations that in this version include same-sex foreplay.
© 2019 The New York Times