“What visions have I seen”
When the RSC announced their production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, surtitling it ‘A Play for the Nation’ as it tours the UK, working with amateur theatre groups across the land, they probably weren’t expecting it to be a play for the nation because somebody would be putting on another production of it every couple of weeks. Or maybe they were, it is one of Shakespeare’s more popular plays – indeed it is among my favourites as the first I ever read – and so why wouldn’t Filter bring it back to the Lyric Hammersmith, the Reversed Shakespeare Company put their own spin on it, Emma Rice opened her tenure at the Globe with it, and the Southwark Playhouse open their own version of it with Go People early next week…
For those outside of the London theatre bubble though, the opportunity to see a televised version of the play, adapted by Russell T Davies’ gay agenda and directed by David Kerr, won’t have felt like overkill. And there was much to commend in a reimagining of the play which dabbled in just a fair few changes for the most part and then decided to rip up the rulebook in a jubilant final ten minutes that will doubtless seize the headlines and rile the purists among us but regardless, managed to remain unerringly faithful to exactly how you would imagine Davies’ Dream might play out (Flute/soldier fanfic please!).
Athens has been remade as a modern fascist dictatorship with John Hannah’s Theseus treating Eleanor Matsuura’s Hippolyta as a prisoner of war, all gussied up like Hannibal Lecter in his straitjacket. From then, it all felt familiar but still freshly remade. The 80s-style make-up of the fairies led by an exemplary Maxine Peake as Titania and Nonso Anozie as Oberon; a bumptious set of Rude Mechanicals led by Elaine Paige’s Mistress Quince (including that cackle) and including Matt Lucas, Bernard Cribbins and Richard Wilson in their number; a youthful, almost schoolmate-playful, quartet of lovers.
What pleased me the most though was the impressive amount of diversity in the cast and the complete ease with which it was essayed. None of the casting decisions felt gratuitous, the changes made felt dramatically secure (I LOVED the trolling of the Demetrius/Lysander fakeout) for the most part. And anything that gives prominent airtime to the likes of current Hamlet Paapa Essiedu (a more likeable Demetrius than usual) and theatrical upcomer Kate Kennedy (as an very good Helena) is a win for me. Yes, things were lost in the compression down to 90 minutes – I would have liked more of Hiran Abeysekera’s Puck and possibly less dancing at the end… – but such is the nature of TV adaptation, it’s always going to be different.
My one real criticism came with the sound. As has been the case with a fair few episodes of Doctor Who, the over-insistence of Murray Gold’s score, not just in the sound balance but in the placement of it too, felt extremely heavy-handed. Not just providing emotional cues where they were scarcely needed (trust your audiences directors, Shakespeare has done the work for you!), it also masked some lovely line readings – Anozie’s tremulous emotion whilst describing “oxlips and nodding violets”, Fisayo Akinade’s genuinely emotional Thisbe, this is poetry made to be celebrated, not half-heard over a swelling orchestra.
For all the gravitas of the Shakespeare Live celebration, I was glad to see that the BBC also decided to celebrate the light-hearted side of the playwright too, hopefully showing a younger, new audience that there’s nothing to be frightened of when it comes to Shakespearean language (and I’d urge them to go along to the Globe’s Dream for a contrast and compare exercise, as well as a rollicking good time too). And seriously, if you were roused to complain about a lesbian butterfly kiss, having just sat through fairy/donkey sex, just have a think about where your life has gone wrong.