Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream

We continue to work our way, slowly, through the canon of Shakespeare’s plays, but when Julie said “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” I wasn’t very enthusiastic. We did it at school – my recorder ensemble provided the music – and have seen it many times. We did a version with our Performing Youth Group at St Edmundsbury Cathedral and Hannah was in a production in Durham which then toured the States. We have seen it in the Abbey Gardens in Bury St Edmunds, Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre, etc. It’s a lovely play, ideally outside on a summer evening (though these days my back needs a decent chair), but not for a January evening in Covid lockdown.

We watched the BBC production directed by Russell T. Davies in 2016. It starts with the Athenian Court and John Hannah as Theseus. No Greek scenery, classical statues, flowing drapery, Mediterranean sun, but a fascist court with troops, surveillance (clever use of ipads). At this point I realised I was watching a different “Dream”. Hippolyta (played by Eleanor Matsurra) comes on. The picture shows wheels, and I assumed we had Hippolyta in a wheelchair. No, she is fastened to a trolley, wearing a leather mask. This is no love-match, but the forced marriage of a captured prisoner. Later on at the marriage feast her bride’s dress is fastened with padlocks. It is profoundly uncomfortable – not what I was expecting. Later I read some of the reviews, and it is pointed out, quite correctly, that Theseus is the sort of Lord who will condemn a girl to death for loving the wrong man.

The lovers are played by Prisca Bakare (Hermia), Kate Kennedy (Helena), Matthew Tennyson (Lysander) and Paapa Essiedu (Demetrius) – my only complaint was that Lysander looked a bit too much like Harry Potter. Apparently they filmed the forest scenes over four nights in October – and were fortunate it never rained – then did some bits in the studio. They are beautifully done, beautiful and natural, put with an added zing of fantasy and effects.

You can tell Russell T. Davies did “Doctor Who”. The effects he uses with the spirits are wonderful – disappearing in colourful trails of light, circling the earth with the effect of a shooting flare. It is brilliant. Maxine Peake is Titania (a long way from Doll Tearsheet), Nonso Anozie is Oberon, and Hiran Abensekera as Puck. Cobweb, Peaseblossom, Moth and Mustardseed are no gentle flowers, they are incredible lively, colourful spirits, but with a hint of menace.

The biggest surprise was Elaine Page as Mistress Quince. We never saw her as “Evita”, but listen to her regularly on Radio 2. This is the first time she has played Shakespeare. I thought she was good, but it hasn’t led to any other Shakespearean roles. Matt Lucas is Bottom, with a very believable donkey costume, Richard Wilson as Starveling and Bernard Cribbins as Snout were lovely. Javone Prince is Snug and Fisavo Akinade is Flute. They cut quite a lot of the rehearsal part, but the play at the wedding feast was as fun as normal.

The wedding feast is given an edge by Theseus not just laughing at the mechanicals, but taking the i-pad and deleting them. Then he starts to feel unwell, and we see his death off-stage on a security camera, being watched on the i-pad by Philostrate (Elliot Levey) who leaves him to his fate. Hippolyta finds love, and will share her future, with Titania – some reviewers complained about their passionate kiss. I wondered where Oberon will fit in this relationship.

Various reviewers described it as a “Dream for our time” or similar phrases. Vibrant, young, multi-cultural, breaking the stereotypes of gender. Yet Julie pointed out that no-one in the play had a disability, the wheelchair did not exist.

It was certainly worth watching on a cold January evening.

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