A promenade Julius Caesar was one of the Bridge’s biggest hits in its first year. Nicholas Hytner now seeks to repeat the process with an immersive Dream that has half the audience standing and that looks both to the past and the future. Its spectacular use of aerial acrobatics evokes memories of Peter Brook’s legendary 1970 production, while its reassignment of much of the text is in line with our faith in sexual liberation. I loved the fiesta-like atmosphere while questioning the textual transpositions.
The evening begins with the prolonged imprisonment of Hippolyta – played by Gwendoline Christie of Game of Thrones fame – in a glass cage. She is clearly the captive bride of Oliver Chris’s autocratic Theseus: the evening’s most moving moment is the look of wounded complicity Christie shares with Isis Hainsworth’s similarly threatened Hermia. As is common, Hippolyta and Theseus then mutate into the fairy queen and king, but Titania speaks lines normally assigned to Oberon while Oberon speaks hers. It is a startling reversal that has loss as well as gain.
The bonus is that it heightens the comedy to see Oberon falling head over heels for an ass: the sight of Chris lasciviously nibbling the erect ears of the translated Bottom is one I shan’t soon forget. The payoff comes when, returning to Theseus, Chris is forced to soften his sexual authoritarianism by recalling his dalliance as Oberon with a male donkey.
But, while the role reversal gives Titania/Hippolyta unusual agency, it has perverse side-effects. The great speech in which the fairy queen laments the death of her votaress sounds odd coming from a man. I’d also argue that you don’t need to fiddle with the text for the play to offer a critique of male power hunger.
Hytner’s purpose, I guess, is to question the idea of a rigid, binary sexuality. This leads him, mistakenly I believe, to show Lysander and Demetrius, as well as Hermia and Helena, snogging each other in the midst of what is meant to be a fierce fight in the forest. But, for all its excesses, the production is staged with immense physical bravura and is great fun. Hammed Animashaun is a suitably overweening Bottom fascinated to be treated as the fairy king’s toy boy while protesting: “Not now. I’ve got a headache.” He also leads a mixed-gender group of mechanicals who perform the Pyramus and Thisbe interlude in tracksuits as if they were a mime ensemble. David Moorst is also an extraordinary high-wire Puck interacting with the audience as freely as with the immortals.
A wealth of invention has gone into the show. Bunny Christie’s design is full of airborne beds and rising greensward, although, unforgivably, the manoeuvring of the set distracts from Puck’s final speech. Arlene Phillips as movement director and Lennin Nelson-McClure as circus captain create some eye-catching gymnastics. We even get a full-throated rendering of Dizzee Rascal’s Bonkers. That song, which proclaims “Man, I’m just livin’ my life”, might be said to epitomise a pleasantly bonkers show that celebrates a freewheeling pan-sexuality. But, while Hytner’s production is like a delirious party, I would have enjoyed it still more if it released the microscopic beauties of Shakespeare’s text as well as the play’s comic energy.
• At the Bridge theatre, London, until 31 August. To be broadcast on NT Live on 17 October.