Earlier this month BAFTA Cyrmu held a screening of BBC’s newest version of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Russell T Davies reunited with BBC Cymru Wales to deliver a modern, magical take on A Midsummer Night’s Dream, one that is likely to delight and challenge all who love the work of William Shakespeare.
In the BBC’s latest adaptation of Shakespeare’s most beloved romantic comedy, there are wedding bells all around — just not necessarily the right ones. The Duke of Athens, Theseus (John Hannah) forcing the captured Amazonian queen Hippolyta (Eleanor Matsuura) to wed him. Meanwhile Egeus (Colin McFarlane) arranges his daughter Hermia (Prisca Bakare) to marry Demetrius (Paapa Essiedu) but her heart is set for Lysander (Matthew Tennyson). And in Fairyland a feud with Queen Titania (Maxine Peake) prompts King Oberon (Nonso Anozie) to concoct a potion from a flower. Under the enchantment she becomes besotted with the first thing she sees after a sleep – Bottom (Matt Lucas) in donkey-form.
Davies has combined with director David Kerr, producer Nikki Wilson (Doctor Who) and the special effects magic of Millennium FX (Doctor Who) to create a magical fairytale world. Combined with the beautiful score from Murray Gold (Doctor Who) and the costume design of Ray Holman (Doctor Who).
Following the screening, Clare Hudson, BBC Cymru moderated a Q&A with Davies, producer Nikki Wilson, director David Kerr and actress Kate Kennedy (Helena). The panel talked in depth about how their adaptation of the original text and the challenges they faced creating this new version.
Right from the start of the evening, Davies lovingly dedicated the production his former drama teacher Cecily Hughes. The person responsible for introducing the 11-year-old Russell to the world of theatre. Hughes, who was in the audience, was thrilled with the work of her former student. She proclaimed that “the spirit of Shakespeare [was] in the room” and then proceeded to related tales of another “knockout” school production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream at Olchfa Comprehensive in Swansea. This was a young Russell T Davies first acting role where he portrayed Bottom. “Even at that age,” she said, “[his] genius was shining through.” Also present was classmate Tracey who played Helena.
It was special evening for another member of the panel, Kate Kennedy. “This is my first big telly job. I didn’t even have a line on something else before! What a brilliant place to learn everything, everyone else was just so amazing, experienced. I’m seriously lucky.”
Even on a modest budget, the script is augmented with excellent direction by David Kerr, impressive visual effects. Michael Pickwoad’s production design and Murray Gold’s masterful ability to strike light and dark tones in a rousing score. The camera sweeps through the moonlit forest – shot mostly in Gloucester – and every scene pops with colour.
Kerr acknowledged the score: “I think often with any film or TV show you put temp music in and sometimes you sort of fall in love with the temp music and then the composed stuff comes in and you, ‘oh really? oh well, can we not get a temp license, isn’t there some way? Surely? But honestly Murray has just elevated so many scenes with his amazing music, and turns so many corners because there are a lot of tricky tones to strike here. There’s broad comedy, it’s almost sitcom-like when you meet the mechanicals in the pub, there’s horror stuff going on with cobwebs and running through the woods, darkly dramatic in all sorts of ways…I can’t imagine it now without that score.”
Russell added: “You can listen to it as a complete symphony.”
In a story that Nikki Wilson described is a “battle of the sexes“, Davies felt that darkness as the basis makes sense:
“Men and women are at war throughout the play, nature is upside down because Oberon and Titania are at war…even Mistress Quince (Elaine Paige), she’s at war with Bottom, the lovers are absolutely at war with each other and fall in love with the wrong people. There’s a darkness, a spine of it there and so once you take that as your starting point…it’s literally midwinter, [like in Hamlet Act 1 Scene 5 ‘the time is out of joint’]. You’re just pulling the darkness out of the text really, and you put that on camera and you get this beautiful dark midnight forest.”
Davies also assured one audience member that no writer should be afraid to take risks and change certain elements. Every story ever told is an reinterpretation of ancient texts. In fact, the play-within-a-play Pyramus & Thisbe inspired Shakespeare to pen Romeo and Juliet.
Hence there will always be film/TV updates every 10 or 20 years to appeal to new audiences. This follows Pete Bowker’s 2005 version for the BBC’s ShakespeaRe-Told series.
The language of Shakespeare here remains. When asked about the process of both adapting a play and creating something new…
Davies: “In terms of writing I don’t [compartmentalise], I’m just writing very freely and hand in a very expensive script…the BBC doesn’t have money to spare, this was genuinely short money, and what Nikki [Wilson] and the team did was extraordinary. I hope I don’t compartmentalise, it’s like ‘go for it.’”
Wilson continued: “It was a hugely ambitious script but it was just a joy being able to meet that challenge and get as much of the budget as we could onto the screen.”
Davies also praised the BBC’s “continuity of thought” and tradition that few broadcasters can pull off, yet he thinks its days are numbered. But despite the government’s proposals to alter its services, there is hope that it still affords homegrown talent the freedom to realise unique drama productions embraced by the world.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream airs on BBC One on Monday 30th May at 20:30 BST.