A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM 5/5
Review by Tommy Cowell
On the 400th anniversary of his death, the BBC are sparing no expense celebrating the life of William Shakespeare. BBC 2 are screening the three-part epic “The Hollow Crown” (starring Benedict Cumberbatch) Cbeebies have performed their own delightful version of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” (starring Mr. Tumble) and BBC soap opera Doctors have created a storyline about his plays, spanning multiple episodes across one week (starring Heston and Ruhma).
Russell T. Davies has now brought his version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream to the table. Davies’ version of “Dream” is a magical, bold but-at-the-same-time-traditional adaptation of the play.
Davies writes about unrequited love. Beautifully. It’s his thing. Vince in Queer as Folk, Holly in Bob and Rose, Martha in Doctor Who, Tosh in Torchwood, Lance in Cucumber… so when I heard he was adapting Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream, I thought, “Of course! That’s PERFECT!”
The 90 minute TV movie was filmed at Roath Lock studios, immediately after Doctor Who 2015 had finished shooting. (In fact, there’s one rather large set from last year’s “Face the Raven” that was reused for this production.)
I’ll admit, I was worried. I’m a bit rusty on my Shakespeare. It’s been so long since I last saw Dream that I bought a copy of the play, just so I could read the CliffsNotes. Within two minutes I put the book down and sat back to enjoy the production. The way it was directed by both Russell (I just know that his scene directions dictated the mood of every beat) and David Kerr (also known for his sterling direction on the Paul Abbott series “No Offence”) was so accessible that I didn’t need any help understanding what was happening on screen, because it was all there, in front of me.
There were very few changes to the play itself, although I did notice that some of the lines were cut for effect. This worked particularly well for the character of Oberon, King of the Fairies (Nonso Anozie). His big speech towards the end of the play, when the Fairies break into Theseus’ palace, was cut from twenty-two lines to just two.
Talking of Theseus, both Russell and John Hannah turn a potentially boring character into someone that’s menacing and cruel. He’s a dictator. Like an unruly actor, who insists that he doesn’t need the script in order to perform, you get the feeling the character will stop half way through the movie and do whatever the hell he wants. (In fact, he actually does that!) There’s one scene towards the climax, involving an iPad and big red crosses that highlight the dangerous qualities of this new version of the character.
Alongside Theseus, the changes made to the character of Hippolyta (Eleanor Matsuura) are a delight as well. The way she glares at Theseus throughout their exchanges, hardly ever taking her untrusting eyes off him, is hypnotic. Her character arc, which is new to this adaptation (but without changing any of Shakespeare’s dialogue) is a wonder to behold, skilfully mastered by Davies.
In any version of Dream, The Workmen practicing and performing their play can be hit and miss. They risk slowing the whole thing down. As always, it falls onto those employed to play them; so thank the maker we have Andy Pryor on casting duties. He brings back familiar faces from Doctor Who (Bernard Cribbins, Matt Lucas and Richard Wilson) as well as introducing new ones in the form of Fisayo Akinade (Cucumber/Banana) Javone Prince and the stunningly fabulous Elaine Paige (I can
see why Susan Boyle was such a big fan, this Woman is a joy!) They’re never boring and a certain twist that their characters are involved in give the audience more reason to care about them. (I also love that they meet in their local to have amateur dramatics meetings. I couldn’t help but think of the King’s Arms in Salford, a tiny pub with a theatre above it.)
It’s a testament to Maxine Peake that she can play both the vacant Twinkle in Dinnerladies and the magical bad-ass Titania. I also love that she kept her Northern accent throughout – the fairy from Bolton! Peake is one of the most enthralling, hilarious actresses in the production.
The actors and actresses playing The Lovers (Prisca Bakare, Matthew Tennyson, Kate Kennedy and Paapa Essiedu) handle the knock-about, love-swapping scenes with great skill. A lot has been made of the gay and lesbian kisses; mostly by loud, desperate journalists, determined to stir up some controversy and meet their deadline. Normal people don’t care. This isn’t a sex crazed version of the Shakespeare play; but a romantic, truthful interpretation with a massive, beating heart. And it’s also a little bit cheeky.
The special FX were spellbinding, blending the swooping shots of the forest with the practical sets used in the Cardiff studios. It had a tremendous fairy tale quality, which is of course appropriate for this adaptation. The music, delivered by Murray Gold, also added to the magical nature of the piece. I bet all the viewers watching this at home will be humming the final tune for hours after the film is finished.
This is a production that simply must be shown to all youngsters studying Shakespeare. Any teacher worth their wage will put this on the projector for the classroom. From the moment each word of the title is blasted onto the screen, against that stark Nazi red background, you’re hooked. This is Shakespeare in action. He’s not been dead for 400 years, he’s alive right now, on your TV screens.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream airs on BBC One on Monday 30th May at 20:30 BST.