In a New ‘Midsummer Night’s Dream,’ Darkness and Wonder

LONDON — This summer will see no fewer than five productions of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” in and around London. But I intend no disrespect to the others when I bet that Nicholas Hytner’s immersive production at the Bridge Theater is unlikely to be equaled. The play runs through Aug. 31 and will be broadcast in movie theaters around the world via NT Live on Oct. 17.

Mr. Hytner, a two-time Tony winner, has taken on a canonical favorite that sometimes feels as if it’s being done out of duty — but not here. Like the “Julius Caesar” that last year was the first runaway success of the new playhouse that Mr. Hytner runs, this “Dream” has been staged with no seats in the stalls, or orchestra level, so that audience members can follow the action on foot. The theater’s usual tiered seating remains in place.

However you choose to experience it, the production brings out both the darkness and the wonder in this multifaceted play. Mr. Hytner and a large cast led by the “Game of Thrones” star Gwendoline Christie conjure afresh a narrative that threatens death from the very start. That is the fate that may befall the feisty young lover Hermia (Isis Hainsworth) if she will not marry Demetrius (Paul Adeyafa), as her father wishes, when she would rather be with Lysander (Kit Young). Bleating “let me go, you’re pathetic,” Tessa Bonham Jones’s emotionally wayward Helena completes an anxious quartet of suitors in hormonal overdrive.

Once these lustful characters enter the magic wood, the designer Bunny Christie turns the flexible Bridge space into a foliage-strewn landscape of platforms that rise out of the floor as if, well, in a dream. (In keeping with the carnal nature of the play, there are beds on many of them.)

The show uses the full height of the theater, with trapezes allowing the play’s fairies to cavort like Cirque du Soleil acrobats and also showcasing the skills of an especially astonishing Puck, played by the fast-rising actor David Moorst: This quicksilver sprite is here seen as a reckless figure of anarchy and of compassion, too, when he extends a misshapen hand toward the audience at the end in a gesture of connection. The sound design folds Beyoncé and rap into the mix, while honoring Shakespeare’s verse at every turn. The result is a rare “Dream” capable of delighting purists and newbies alike.

No Shakespeare is complete these days, or so it seems, without a gender swap of some sort, and I’m reluctant to reveal the specifics here. Suffice it to say that Ms. Christie, who is first seen suspended in a cage, in a forbidding image of entrapment, cuts an imposing figure as two queens — Hippolyta and Titania — making their way carefully through a polyamorous landscape. (The rival male lovers steal a clinch with each other.)

Oliver Chris is both stern and cheeky as required of his own dual royal roles: the ramrod-stiff duke Theseus and a notably libidinous fairy king, Oberon. The “Pyramus and Thisbe” play-within-the-play is beautifully led by Hammed Animashaun as a sweet-faced Bottom: His troupe of working-class actors discover that they quite like this newfound thing called art. In that way, these burgeoning thespians are in sync with a version of the play that Mr. Hytner and his team have refashioned very specifically from the ground up.

Peaceful coexistence is more difficult in “Europe,” the transfixing 1994 play by the Scottish playwright David Greig that has been chosen by the director Michael Longhurst to begin his first season as the artistic director at the Donmar Warehouse. (The play runs through Aug. 10.)

While this may sound like a play for the Brexit age, it is actually set during the Balkan wars of the 1990s. And yet the writing speaks to the here and now in its depiction of, among other things, refugees who come up against an emboldened far-right movement. “Europe” may be the name on the poster, but this story is being told the world over.

You could imagine a well-intentioned treatise on this topic, but Mr. Longhurst finds a theatricality that animates the collision of cultures. Don’t be put off by the subpar Brecht of the dreary location-setting chorus that is sung at the start; the play picks up momentum as its finely drawn array of characters come into focus.

It is heartening to witness the same-sex relationship that develops between the young refugee Katia (Natalia Tena) and Adele (Faye Marsay, excellent), a married employee at the forgotten railway station of a ground-down border town somewhere in Europe. Katia’s father, Sava (Kevork Malikyan, in an immensely touching performance), finds an unanticipated ally in an underemployed stationmaster, Fret (Ron Cook), who concedes that the place he inhabits is little more than “a blur from the train.”

Neither of these older men can contain the ramped-up volatility of various thugs, with little time for outsiders, who include Faye’s increasingly desperate husband, Berlin (Billy Howle), a malcontent filled with rage at his loveless and jobless life. The climax comes with a scenic coup from the accomplished designer Chloe Lamford that sends the world of the play crashing down. How do we emerge from the wreckage and move on? There’s a question guaranteed to haunt playgoers as they make their way to wherever they call home.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Directed by Nicholas Hytner. Bridge Theater, through Aug. 31; National Theater Live broadcast on Oct. 17.
Europe. Directed by Michael Longhurst. Donmar Warehouse, through Aug. 10.

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