I must admit that when I first heard that Russell T Davies would be adapting A Midsummer Night’s Dream as part of the BBC’s Shakespeare season, I wondered if this would be a complete revamp. Set in the modern day, perhaps, with a gay club called the Forest where four heterosexuals accidentally take too much ecstasy, while a big old queen falls in love with a complete ass.
I shouldn’t have worried – not that I would have, too much: an RTD-written modern day version would be a hoot, and would be much better than the roller-disco version The Donkey Show which takes just this approach. No, this production is about a faithful and as lovingly crafted an adaptation as one can get for the television screen, a version which takes the same blends of excellent design and visual effects as Davies called upon for Doctor Who and uses them to relate the tale anew.
Initially, one may have balked at the portrayal of Athens as a totalitarian regime, but it places the forced marriage of the captured Hippolyta to the victorious Theseus in a true war footing. The brutalism of the styles – a mix of Nazi Germany and Imperial Rome – contrast nicely with the rustic charm of the inn in which the Mechanicals plan their amateur dramatics.
And it’s here, with the local townsfolk, that this production’s spell really begins to weave its charms. Too often, the mechanicals can kill a show’s atmosphere stone dead with their forced comedy – I have to admit to finding such a production with Michael Grandage’s West End production a few years ago, which saw David Walliams playing Bottom exactly as he plays the character of ‘David Walliams’ he trots out on every year’s Britain’s Got Talent. But here, with Elaine Paige valiantly attempting to lead a troupe including Richard Wilson, Bernard Cribbins and Javone Prince, Walliams’ Little Britain partner Matt Lucas produces one of the finest portrayals of the over-enthusiastic weaver as there has ever been.
Best among the four romantic leads (whose potion-induced declarations of love form one half of the interest in the middle, forest-set, acts) is Kate Kennedy’s Helena. Kennedy’s height makes Helena a charmingly awkward character as she struggles through the woody undergrowth, bringing a lightness to the character that matches her delivery of Shakespeare’s words.
In any production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, though, it is the fairies who garner the most attention. Personally, I found Nonso Anozie’s Oberon to be a little distant, and more underwhelming than I am used to seeing this character. But that allows Maxine Peake’s Titania to shine in comparison, which is far from a bad thing. And Hiran Aneysekera, who made a delightful Peter Pan in last year’s production at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre, performed similar magic here as the mischievous Puck.
Traditionally, once the misguided lovers wake from their slumber and the love spells wear off, the return to Athens leaves the fairfolk far behind. Most productions I have seen keep them on and around stage, silently watching the mechanicals’ play and Theseus’ marriage. But here is where Davies’s vision really starts to kick in, as the spirits meddle once more – and with good reason.
On stage, it’s not uncommon for Theseus and Hippolyta to be played by the same actors as Oberon and Titania – which makes the former couple’s wedding, and Hippolyta’s acceptance of the matrimony she initially rejected, feel like the pay off to two other characters’ stories. Here, though, there is no such doubling up, so John Hannah’s Theseus gets his comeuppance during the mechanicals’ performance of Pyramus and Thisbe – all so that Titania and the other fairies can rescue Hippolyta, who is one of their own. Without necessarily needing to rewrite any dialogue, Davies gives a refreshing, liberating spin – with CGI giving some great story beats and glorious visuals to Hippolyta’s closing moments that would be near impossible to achieve on stage.
Every great production of a Shakespeare classic should feel vibrant and new, sharing the power of the original script and the imprint of a new vision. A Midsummer Night’s Dream fulfils that in every way.
And more than that – it went out in primetime on BBC1. Granted, that probably wouldn’t have been the case in a year where the Corporation wasn’t seeking charter renewal, and having to remind the government why and how it does work that no commercial channel can. But while The Hollow Crown slashed and diced its way across BBC2 for the chattering classes in the galleries who love their Shakespeare Histories, this Dream was the Bard for the rest of us, the groundlings on BBC1.
And it was marvellous.