If Shakespeare had CG special effects at his disposal for A Midsummer Night’s Dream, he might not have bothered with all that poetry. His fairies’ flight could have been powered by more than just speech and his stage dressed in something other than words. As it was, trapdoors and coloured smoke were about the limit of Elizabethan VFX and so the writing had to be good enough to do the job solo. Happily it was and still is.
That doesn’t stop modern adaptations like up this one zushing things up with whizz-bang stuff, sometimes to the extent that it’s hard to hear the play underneath.
Russell T Davies’ version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, directed by David Kerr, mostly avoids having the spectacle drown out the words. A few lines are sacrificed for the sake of visual excitement—try paying attention to verse when someone’s dangling off a cliff-edge or blasting lasers out of their palms—but with this much glee in evidence, why carp?
Besides, never one to hold back when it came to linguistic flourishes, given the firepower you just know Shakespeare would have thrown in laser battles and CG fireworks by the bucketful.
Davies and Kerr have stuck with tradition in most ways and worked a bit of puckish magic in others. Athens has been reimagined as a tech-totalitarian dystopia complete with Fascist iconography that either recalls the early twentieth century or the Hunger Games films, depending on your frame of reference. The fairies though, with their face-paint and back-combed hair, in time-honoured style look like the sort of troupe you might stumble across rehearsing an interpretive dance at Glastonbury’s Green Fields.
This isn’t a bold, avant-garde reinterpretation, praise be. Davies and co. have restyled the play as the sort of family-friendly fantasy adventure he triumphed with in Doctor Who, complete with a magical Murray Gold score. Wise trims to the text have been made in the interest of accessibility. The always-weird premise of Oberon and Titania’s beef—a little Indian boy each wants in their own retinue—is replaced by simple lovers’ jealousy, for example.
Not a long play by any means (it has half the lines of, say, Hamlet), ninety minutes is enough time to keep all the good stuff in and lose some of the less vital pastoral talk about oxen and ploughmen. Davies makes Shakespeare approachable without writing over the original language and using actors kids will respond to every bit as much as adults.
It turns out that Matt Lucas doing his thing is the perfect fit for Bottom the weaver, for instance. Maxine Peake is a tough Titania you’d need the girth of Nonso Anozie’s Oberon to be brave enough to get on the wrong side of. And Bernard Cribbins and Richard Wilson are Bernard Cribbins and Richard Wilson, what more do you want?
The lively quartet of new and new-ishcomers Prisca Bakare, Kate Kennedy, Matthew Tennyson and Paapa Essiedu play the quartet of confused lovers Hermia, Helena, Lysander and Demetrius, with Kennedy the comic stand-out. Their story is given one momentarily thrilling alteration as a love-potion-drunk Demetrius sees not Helena but Lysander as his goddess and nymph. This play’s shrewdest message being that drunken infatuations rarely last though, it’s soon corrected and fidelity to the source material wins out.
The character most altered by Davies’ treatment is John Hannah’s tyrannical Theseus. Instead of concluding the play with festivities celebrating Theseus’ wedding to his now-subdued prisoner-of-war Hippolyta (Eleanor Matsuura) a woman he woo’d with his sword, he dies as the fairies tear his banners into party streamers and Titania claims his bride as her own “warrior love”. It ends like any good party, with a heaving dance floor, a rousing hey ding a ding singalong and a proper snog.
What changes to the text there are more or less amount to Davies standing up for the play’s women. Instead of being humiliated into submission by their men, Titania and Hippolyta triumph in love for each other. Their union is part of a regime change enacted by the fairies, who come to symbolise joy over tyranny, colour over bleakness, celebration, chaos and festivity over cold power and cruel punishment. Joyful. Just the thing for a bleak bank holiday.