‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ was a much needed relief in the dirge of Michigan winter

Monday, November 25, 2019 - 10:21pm

NOSELL

National Theatre Live / YouTube

Shakespeare is remembered as the greatest playwright of all time. The greatest struggle with putting on Shakespeare now, though, is to make it fresh and relevant for audiences all over the globe. His narratives are geniusly concocted, but the vernacular more closely resembles rocket science than a light-hearted rom-com, which was how they were originally performed. Such struggles were not the case for National Theatre Live’s production of Shakespeare’s comedy, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” presented Sunday evening by the University Musical Society at the Michigan Theater.

The most extraordinary aspect of the production was how specific and clear the storytelling presented itself. Usually, I can barely make out every other phrase in a Shakespearian play. In this production, the actors, among them Gwendolyn Christie (“Game of Thrones”), Oliver Chris (“Green Wing”), David Moorst (“NT Live: Allelujah!”) and Hammed Animashaun (“The Barber Shop Chronicles”), managed to relay the plot in such a way that I was able to enjoy myself the entire time. I relaxed into the storyline so much that I found myself laughing hysterically through most of the production. 

In a society full of Twitter feeds and Instagram captions slaughtering any sort of poeticism we have left in the English language, I felt refreshed by how decadent Shakespeare’s language was while maintaining the playfulness and absurdity of the comedy.

Director Nicholas Hytner changed one key aspect of the plotline. He switched Titania, played by Christie, and Oberon’s lines around so that the king ended up having sex with the donkey, Longbottom, instead of the queen. The reason for the switch was because Hytner lamented how serious productions of “Midsummer” were becoming. Originally, the queen is constantly being humiliated by the king, and has no choice but to be presented as a very sexist parable. In Hytner’s production, the king is tricked by the queen and the end result was hysterical. Their “lovemaking” was interpreted by a dance/silk number to Beyonce’s “Love On Top.” Pure genius. 

Initially, I was worried by the fact that much of the audience stood on the stage for the immersive experience. Shakespeare’s plays are more of a marathon than a sprint. However, the performance was so inventive and immersive that I understood why the director Hytner opted for audience participation. At times, they served as the forest for which the dream takes place. Silks were also suspended above the audience for most of the play from which the actors did trapeze tricks to show that they were, indeed, fairies in the production. At intermission, Hytner casually said that the performers, world class actors, who had never interacted with silks before were given three months to learn how to maneuver their way around silks some 20 feet in the air while reciting Shakespearian monologues.

National Theatre Live brings world class British theater to cinemas around the globe. It’s not difficult to surmise why this production of “Midsummer” was so brilliant. Theater in Britain receives more funding from the government compared to the U.S., and actors are allowed a significantly longer time to rehearse and prepare for each production.

Last year, I attended NTL’s production of “Antony and Cleopatra,” and was equally impressed. It is such a privilege to experience world class performances for a low student price, even if it is relayed on a screen. In a society full of reality television and superhero franchises, the ability to refresh classic works as efficiently as National Theatre Live did is reassuring.