Friday, 24 April 2020

Stage-to-screen review: A Midsummer Night's Dream (BBC Wales)

Russell T Davies' TV adaptation of A Midsummer Night's Dream first aired in 2016 as part of the BBC's commemoration of the fourth centenary of Shakespeare's death. I had planned to watch it at the time but never got round to it - that summer was one of those particularly full of competing productions of the play and I'd seen quite enough of them. Apart from that, it was clear from the opening shot of Athens as a fascist state draped in red, white and black ersatz-swastika insignia that Davies' version was going to be one of those defined entirely by the line "I wooed thee with my sword" (not necessarily a problem in itself, by this point I think I was mainly tired of people thinking they'd discovered a uniquely dark take on the play, when in fact I would say bad-guy Theseus was the standard interpretation of the 2010s.) In any case, with "Culture in Quarantine" the latest BBC strand to heavily feature Shakespeare, the film got repeated on BBC Four, giving it another month on iPlayer for me to finally catch up.

John Hannah is the dictatorial Theseus who's marrying Eleanor Matsuura's Hippolyta against her will; quite why he's doing so is vague at first but special effects suggest she's actually a magical creature whose power he's suppressing by keeping her tied up, and it's later confirmed that she's allied to the fairies in the nearby woods.

At the time Davies was still most associated with Doctor Who and its spin-offs, and getting him to do the screenplay for this was explicitly meant to give Shakespeare a similar fun-for-all-the-family feel. This, along with the need to fit the story into a 90-minute running time, gives the film a brash, frantic feel that made me struggle to warm to it: After the heavy emphasis on the play's dark side in the opening, the first proper comedy plot arrives with a quartet of young lovers, and Murray Gold's music over-emphasising where the comic beats are meant to be gets old quickly. The film is more confident in letting the broader comedy of the Rude Mechanicals play out, headlined by Matt Lucas' cuddly Bottom.

Part of how David Kerr's film deals with the increased emphasis on the story's nastiness and violence is in a battle of the sexes and a sense of toxic masculinity: It's not just Theseus' world that's oppressively male as in the forest Oberon (Nonso Anozie) leads a theatening pack of all-male fairies, against Maxine Peake's gentler female crew who are more distracted by concern for Hippolyta. Peake's first entrance as Titania is a "wow" moment worth the reliance on special effects on its own, and she's an exciting bit of casting that certainly doesn't disappoint. Where the Rude Mechanicals don't fall into this battle of the sexes is in the sense of camp about them (and what can be camper than casting Elaine Paige as Quince?) that prefigures Davies' gentle queering-up of the story*.

With the likes of Fisayo Akinade, Richard Wilson and Bernard Cribbins making up the Mechanicals they were bound to be a highlight, although Javone Prince threatens to quietly upstage them all as Snug. The film does fudge some of the play's best comic setpieces though, with the scenes of the young lovers being turned into a misjudged action sequence, and the showstopping performance of Pyramus and Thisbe being slightly lost as the dark interpretation comes back to the fore and overshadows it (dammit, if Bernard Cribbins is dressed as a wall I don't want the camera cutting away to John Hannah going all homicidal on an iPad.) But it's when Davies comes up with the most extreme touches, all-out changing the ending, that the film really comes to life†. (He also comprehensively deals with one of the problem elements of the ending that I've barely even seen acknowledged on stage, as Hiran Abeysekera's Puck takes the spell off Paapa Essiedu's Demetrius' eyes to discover that he still wants to be with Helena regardless.)

This is A Midsummer Night's Dream that at times shows signs of having a remit to make Shakespeare "accessible" as if he isn't already: Fortunately it's more things like ramping up the action, creatures and VFX, and apart from Murray Gold telling the audience where the jokes are at the start it doesn't really go for the much more egregious crime of assuming they won't understand it as written. I found it irritating at first and it doesn't make the most of the play's comedy, but by the end I enjoyed the new identity it found for the story.

A Midsummer Night's Dream by William Shakespeare in a version by Russell T Davies is available until the 18th of May on BBC iPlayer.

Running time: 1 hour 30 minutes.

Photo credit: BBC.

*yes, gentle, the publicity for the film largely focused on a manufactured outrage over how much Davies queered the story up but let's face it, compared to what theatre productions do to the play as a matter of course it's positively restrained

†changing the ending is also one way of dealing with having focused on bad-guy Theseus earlier; unless you turn the entire play into the story of Theseus having to earn his redemption, like Nicholas Hytner's near-perfect production, his actions at the end are hard to reconcile with the man we met at the beginning

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