Review (***) ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’, Dir. David Kerr, BBC Films, 2016. 90 minutes.
By Alan Brown
February 12, 2018
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Our Bottom Line
An exciting vision of the ‘Dream’ from a time lord of television script writing. It remains just about the most perfect school play; just don’t try duelling with lightning! This is a high energy film.
This adventurous one takes TV Shakespeare to the next level. Whether that’s up or down the way is very much up to you. Set your preferences on a 4K set to 4F: Family, Fantasy, Fun and Frolics – and you won’t be disappointed. If you watch on a less than ‘Ultra’ TV on a Big screen then you’ll probably miss out, for this adaptation of the Dream is up-scaled and out-there, which from writer Russell T Davies, he of Dr Who and Torchwood, is what you should expect and enjoy.
And – to persist with the advertising copy from Richer Sounds (… the UK’s Home Cinema specialist) – Davies’ Dream is ‘built to perform’ and ‘styled to impress’. You could argue the same, of course, for Peter Brook’s legendary 1970 production* and you’d be right, but this one has the patterning and the graphic effects that border on the marvellous, as in Marvel Comics. No matter, really, because Davies and director David Kerr are all about stirring ‘youth … to merriments … with triumph and with revelling’.
Those are Theseus’ lines and that would be nice, but first there’s the matter of Theseus (John Hannah) and he is not nice. In fact he’s a lean and mean and cruel Nazi who has Hippolyta strapped to a sack truck and who needs a bodyguard of black visored Stormtroopers to feel good about himself. Athens is in a bad way and Theseus’ marriage is not going to mend it. Hippolyta’s waking love: ‘Four nights will quickly dream away the time ..’ is autocued and fake. Hermia is to marry Demetrius (a Stormtrooper!) or die. There is no nunnery option so the only way out, displayed on Google Maps, is into the woods … for expensive and impressive night shoots.
It is unsurprising that when you make Lysander slight and asthmatic and have him wear Harry Potter glasses, then you can make a massive Oberon (Nonso Anozie) materialise from within a lightning strike and give him horns and body armour from the World of Warcraft. Puck (Hiran Abeyskere) is more familiar: an exotic cross between faun with goatee and firefly. The attendant tribe of creatures crouch and hiss in feral costume and bare their teeth at the glitter dusted faery band, for Titania terrifies them all. Maxine Peak is superb as the Fairy Queen, with elfin eyebrows and wide eyes, baiting Oberon with seductive charm and then laughing in his face at his invitation to join him for Theseus’ wedding. Davies is having fun with the text here but to intentional and serious effect. Titania’s ‘little changeling boy’ is out of the picture, made redundant by her scathing rebuke of Oberon’s time in the hay with ‘amorous Philidia’. For his part Oberon is keenly aware of his queen’s love for Hippolyta, which makes for a great reveal and soaring finale at the end of the film.
Meanwhile and sometime before …. down the beetling CGI cliff from the palace is ‘The Old Mechanicals’ pub where ordinary, ‘hard-handed’ men are met in Happy Hour to take their parts. Matt Lucas, well away from the caricatures of Little Britain, is a warm and natural Nick Bottom; and for other fans of British TV comedy, Bernard Cribbens is Snout and Richard Wilson is Starveling. Elaine Paige doesn’t sing at all (Shame!) but does a winning turn as Mistress Quince. Fisaya Akinade as Thisbe brings the audience to its feet as he genuinely moves them at ‘her’ death, which is some achievement with immortal lines like ‘his eyes were green as leeks’.
The spellbound lovers, Lysander and Hermia, Demetrius and Helena run, variously pursued, through the woods and there’s a perilous moment for Hermia as she dangles over a precipice. It’s probably hereabouts that the text is most cut, although there’s room enough for Helena’s bewildered hurt (lovely work by Kate Kennedy) and for laughter at the sight of the fierce ‘puppet’ vs. the ‘painted maypole’. There’s also, as diversity reigns, Demetrius briefly falling for Lysander.
There’s a liberation struggle going on in which the screenplay would escape the old script but nevertheless the best, family-friendly, scenes are retained. Titania’s bower is glowing and garlanded for the gentle and transformed Bottom and the ‘lamentable comedy’ of Pyramus and Thisbe is played out with lashings of pumped blood and ripe versifying. Possibly the most intense moment is Titania’s at 19:54 (Act 2. Sc.1) when she reminds Oberon of the injury their brawling ‘dissension’ has brought to the world, human and natural; and Bottom’s awakening from his ‘most rare vision’ at 1:05:00 is as affecting as ever.
For me it’s a mixed bag. Davies’ adaptation is highly coloured and intelligent, particularly in gender terms, but – back to TV & streaming – the ‘content bundle’ is too much. Jackboots and semi-automatics and Theseus as Sturmbannführer is a heavy steer and the full-on soundtrack is often more suited to an orc attack. I’m more with Mendelssohn or, if time is short, Satie’s ‘Cinq Grimaces’.
The DVD’s bonus interviews with cast and creative team are always encouraging. Russell Davies’ cheerful advice is, ‘Remember that Dream that you knew when you were a kid? This is a brand new one.’ Spot on!
[Ed.: Now you’ve read the review, why don’t you explore some of the characters in A Midsummer Night’s Dream by clicking on one of the following links in our Let’s Explore section from the Index:
|Let’s explore Section|
|Bottom / Pyramus – the leading actor|
|Helena – the rejected lover|
|Puck, or Robin Goodfellow|
|Quince / Prologue – the Elizabethan director|
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