A Midsummer Night’s Dream
by William Shakespeare
Directed by Russell T. Davies
BBC1 TV broadcast, 30th May 2016
THE ATHENIAN COURT
John Hannah – Theseus, Duke of Athens
Eleanor Matsuura – Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons
Egeus – Colin McFarlane, father to Hermia
Philostrate – Elliot Levy, Theseus’s first minister
Prisca Bakare – Hermia
Kate Kennedy – Helena
Matthew Tennyson – Lysander
Paapa Essiedu – Demetrius
Maxine Peake – Titania, Queen of the Fairies
Nonso Anozie – Oberon, King of the Fairies
Hiran Abeysekera – Puck, a sprite
Charlotte Blake – Cobweb
Varada Sethu – Peasblossom
Tia Benbow-Hart – Moth
Marlene Madenge- Mustardseed
Elaine Page – Mistress Quince
Matt Lucas – Bottom
Richard Wilson – Starveling
Bernard Cribbins – Snout
Javone Prince – Snug
Fisayo Akinade – Flute
Bank holiday Monday! Yes, it’s the traditional day for a play on TV. For my entire childhood and youth we looked forward to our Brian Rix farces broadcast live from the Whitehall Theatre (now the Trafalgar Studios) every Bank Holiday Monday. So it’s the right day to do it, though this is a film for TV, NOT a live broadcast. It shouldn’t even be in the STAGE section here, but it should go with all the other Dreams on this blog, and there are a lot.
It’s directed by Russell T. Davies, the man who revived (resuscitated?) Dr Who. It features two recent Hamlets – Maxine Peake was a female Hamlet last year (Titania here) and Paapa Essiedu (Demetrius) is currently the first Royal Shakespeare Company black Hamlet, then we saw Hiran Abeysekera (Puck) two days ago as Posthumus in Cymbeline at the RSC and he is Horatio to Paapa Essediu’s RSC Hamlet. Fiyaso Akinade (Flute / Thisbe here) was Caliban in The Globe’s The Tempest at the Wanamaker Playhouse.
Demetrius (Paapa Essiedu)
Mistress Quince (Elaine Page)
Add musical star Elaine Page as Mistress Quince, One Foot In The Grave sitcom curmudgeon Richard Wilson, and Bernard Cribbins, who I remember for Right Said Fred and Hole In The Ground, both early 60s hit singles, then Carry On films, but who has had a distinguished Shakespearean career too. We get Matt Lucas as Bottom, a role his co-star and co-writer David Walliams took in the Michael Grandage version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream with Sheridan Smith. You’re going to most remember John Hannah’s Theseus along with Nonso Anozie’s horned Oberon most, I suspect. It’s pre-Peter Brooks version. Theseus and Oberon are entirely separate roles, as are Hippolyta and Titania, whose final kiss has had most of the publicity (Lesbian kiss! trumpet the tabloids).
Oberon (Nonso Anozie)
It’s cut to 90 minutes, and by an hour in, we’re already out of the forest at daybreak with the four lovers looking up at Theseus in his hunting gear. It’s very heavily cut and very fast. It falls over backwards for teen appeal, and that’s not a criticism. References abound. Lysander is consciously cast, costumed and given spectacles to echo Harry Potter. The Mechanicals, i.e. amateur theatre group, first meet to rehearse in a country pub with dartboard … ah, Rovers Return (Coronation Street) or Queen Vic (Eastenders) echoes. The half-timbered street in the rain outside the pub is just like the last stop before leaving the Shire in Lord of The Rings. The light sabre, or laser beam contest (sorry “magical force from fingers” contest) between Oberon and Titania is Star Wars. So are the black visors on Theseus’s stormtroopers, or rather palace guards. Hippolyta is restrained with a Hannibal Lector Silence of The Lambs mask … hey, kids shouldn’t be getting that reference. Perhaps there’s a touch of Gandalf in the woods and Puck turns into a ball of light just like Disney’s Tinkerbell. Hermia falling off a cliff and being grabbed by the hand is any number of films. They’ve seen Pan’s Labyrinth too; look at Oberon. iPads abound, and are used for several points. Hermia and Lysander leave details of their flight through the woods to his aunt on a giant touch screen, which is where Helena sees it.
Duke Theseus (John Hannah) with imperial Stormtroopers
Hippolyta (Eleanor Matsuura)
The Athenian court seems to have crept in from the film version of Coriolanus or stage Richard III or Macbeth in that it’s a fascist state strewn with red flags, with white circles and a black design, i.e. Nazi regalia. We know Theseus’s court is meant to be a bit strict discipline, but I’d never thought of it as out-and-out fascist, which it is here. It’s often ignored that Hippolyta is the captured Queen of the Amazons, though not at the Globe’s 2013 version. Here she’s not only captured but padlocked into a strait jacket with orange Guantanamo trousers, the Hannibal Lector jaw restraint, and first appears strapped to a sack truck. Demetrius gets a black SS style uniform, while Lysander is languidly Potteresque.
Titania and her faeries, hordes of the things
The faeries come out very well indeed because the SFX have them disappearing and reappearing with abandon, which helps a great deal with Puck. Titania’s leafy cheek tendrils are lovely to behold. Oberon’s multiple horns are imposing. Titania’s attendants benefit from close ups in expressing their disgust and disdain at Bottom.
Titania (Maxine Peake) with Bottom (Matt Lucas)
Bottom gets a full realistic ass’s head and hooves too, which is rare on stage. It’s inevitable with film, but on stage directors have worked out that if you’re casting an accomplished comedian / comic actor, you do want to see his own face, and content themselves with ears, a hairy wig and big teeth. It means that Matt Lucas doesn’t leap out in the role at all. In fact the Mechanicals are great casting, but low-key in the balance of the play. A female “amateur director” … Peter Quince becomes Mistress Quince (Elaine Page)… is the same as the current Globe version, but the Globe squeeze far more laughs from it. Richard Wilson and Bernard Cribbins look great as a background duo, but the actual play is largely thrown away … Cribbins plays The Wall, and Wilson plays The Moon.
Hermia is very short and dark, Helena even taller than stage directors can usually cast. It’s an especially good Helena, but I’d say it references Lucy Briggs-Owens gawky “best Helena ever” stumbling and tripping in pursuit of Demetrius at the RSC five years ago. A black Demetrious, a white Lysander makes it all nicely multi-cultural.
Puck (Hiran Abeysekera)
A Russell Davies’ innovation works because of the speed at which Puck can do stuff. The love drops in the eyes is always funny, as Puck screws up and they switch affections, so that both Lysander and Demetrius switch from loving Hermia to loving the astonished Helena, who thinks they’re mocking her. The innovation here is when Demetrius first gets the love drops, he first sees Lysander and starts making up to him, then Puck swiftly corrects his mistake and the attentions turn to Helena as it should be. It’s a short funny sequence which doesn’t distort the plot. The current production at The Globe Theatre goes all the way by making Helena into Helenus, a gay man, so uses the same gender bender joke for much longer. Here, it’s a good idea, better short, and I’m sure stage productions will pick up on it.
Lysander (Matthew Tennyson) – just a touch of Harry Potter
Helena (Kate Kennedy) – all the characters get a soft halo when seen after the love drops have been applied
However, I think the emphasis on speed, lush SFX and visuals weaken the lovers scene. It’s just done too quickly, and the chase through the woods with Hermia falling over a cliff just isn’t as funny as the extended physical row in the play, and the cliff with roaring sea is one point where “OTT- over the top” comes quite literally to mind. I thought that even though Davies must have had a 90 minute maximum length in mind for TV schedules and popular attention span, it really needed 10 minutes more (which is still an hour shorter than on stage), and all of that 10 minutes on the lovers story.
Hermia (Prisca Bakare)
Because it’s a naturally stagey thing, the amateurs version of Pyramus and Thisbe played at the end, is easily the least funny I’ve seen it, even with its stellar cast of comedians. It’s as if they thought, three top experienced comic actors … good plot … it’ll work. It falls flat. Maybe that was intended, because the focus is not on the amateur play. Russell Davies has used it to show Duke Theseus’s reactions to their antics … putting red crosses over the actors’ faces (Eliminate him! as a Dalek would say) on his iPad as the amateurs annoy him more. Philostrate is a bit part in most productions, but here we constantly cut to Philostrate’s face, full of trepidation at his bosses’ s mood. Elliot Levey is very good indeed. Then we go into this long sequence of Theseus having a heart attack which distracts us totally from the parallel Thisbe acting out dying scene, which is done straight with none of the usual cross-gender man in drag jokes.
Philostrate (Elliot Levey), usually Theseus’s minister / vizier / admin assistant / lawyer
The point is, that Theseus does not die in the original play, nor in any other version. It’s normally a joyful wedding. I have strong doubts over this addition, because as Shakespeare is being introduced in first year secondary school, the DVD of this will become a standard “popularize the Bard” classroom tool, Personally, I think my old grammar school had it right in bringing in Shakespeare at 14 years rather than 11, and then eschewing the “Colour in a picture of Macbeth” and “Build a model of Elsinore from cereal packets” techniques (I am not joking) in favour of the original text, though we watched the Orson Welles’ Macbeth too. By making a major plot change, teachers are being forced into a great deal of explanation. I guess examination boards will like it though because they’ll be able to pick out those kids who just watched the DVD and glanced at the Pass notes when they start mentioning the death of Theseus in the exam. The teaching of Shakespeare too early is weird. English lessons in schools are still far too weak on basic language structure, and for literature, I would use appropriate texts for the age rather than updated Lambs’ Tales From Shakespeare and introduce the real thing three years later.
They use the “all the cast dancing” ending which is the normal encore at the RSC, Globe or any big Shakespeare comedy production.
Overall? A bit too fast. A lot is aimed at that new pre-teen / early-teen Bard exposure and the BBC will shift a lot of DVDs to schools. As popular Shakespeare goes, the current Globe version directed by Emma Rice is vastly better as an introduction (and will undoubtedly emerge on DVD next year), though maybe from mid-teen on, rather than early-teen. It is a stage play, so all screen versions win on the magic and fairies, but tend to lose on the lovers. On the lovers, Paapa Essediu is already a theatre star, and the other three have a great platform to join him. It does use the original text, heavily cut as it is, which is a good thing.
The music, with borrowed classical allusion is too all pervasive … it never seems to stop, and that interferes with clarity when kids are trying to follow Elizabethan English too. It’s trying to tell you how to feel. Way too much of it and clichéd.
It’s the abridged audio book. It’s the graphic novel. It’s the PC version of both. But I think it will lead to appreciation of the original in the fullness of time, and that’s positive.
LINKED REVIEWS OF CAST ON THIS BLOG:
The Tempest, Wanamaker Playhouse 2016 (Caliban)
Hamlet – Maxine Peake, NT Live Broadcast from Manchester Royal Exchange
OTHER REVIEWS OF A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM ON THIS BLOG:
- A Midsummer Night’s Dream – RSC 2011
- A Midsummer Night’s Dream – Headlong 2011
- A Midsummer Night’s Dream – Filter 2011
- A Midsummer Night’s Dream – Selladoor 2013
- A Midsummer Nights Dream – Handspring 2013, Bristol
- A Midsummer Night’s Dream – Grandage 2013
- A Midsummer Night’s Dream – Globe 2013
- A Midsummer Night’s Dream – Propellor 2013
- A Midsummer Night’s Dream RSC 2016, ‘A Play for the Nation’ at Stratford
- A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Globe 2016
- A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Bristol Old Vic Theatre School, 2016
- A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Bath Theatre Royal, 2016