“If we shadows have offended, think but this, and all is mended, hat you have but slumber’d here, while these visions did appear…”
When is Shakespeare at his best? When faithfully recited in period costume? Or when transformed into something almost unrecognisably new? If you believe the latter, you’ll be delighted by Russsell T Davies’ take on A Midsummer Night’s Dream. If you don’t, you may well end up delighted anyway.
The play is a staple of the school curriculum, its light-hearted whimsy, romance and fantastical comedy all deemed accessible to younger viewers. So who better to bring all three to the screen than the former Doctor Who head writer? He cuts the text down to a trim 90 minutes, but mines the text’s whimsy, romance and fantasy for all its worth.
The plot surely needs no introduction, as we swiftly encounter four young human lovers, Hermia (Prisca Bakare), Lysander (Matthew Tennyson), Helena (Kate Kennedy) and Demetrius (Paapa Essiedu), all of whom are in varying states of requited and unrequited love with each other. While they plot to flee the city of Athens – and its ruler, Theseus (John Hannah) – to be with the ones they desire, a rift is brewing in the nearby woods, between fairy king Oberon (Nonso Anozie) and his queen, Titania (Maxine Peake), that sees the whole lot of them tricked by magic.
The forest scenes have always given productions the chance to run wild with their imagination, but Davies’ script doesn’t stop there. In his hands, Athens becomes a place of myth and fantasy too: red banners adorn Theseus’ palace that could be straight out of a Marvel movie, guards show us contextual stage instructions on iPad-like devices that would surely have been deemed magical in Elizabethan times, and Tennyson’s Lysander looks like he’s cosplaying as Harry Potter. Even Hippolyta (Eleanor Matsuura) is depicted as the daughter of Ares, God of War, with a Hannibal Lecter-style mask to stop her breaking free.
The cast throw themselves into it, from Game of Thrones’ Nonso Anozie, whose Oberon is equal parts intimidating and immature, to Maxine Pearce’s fierce Titania, who has the attitude to go with her punk rock make-up – only to soften into sweet nothings, after she falls in love with a donkey. The donkey, of course, is Bottom, a member of the amateur theatre troupe hoping to put on a play for Theseus in his court. Matt Lucas is surprisingly perfect for the role, his high-pitched delivery endearingly naive and amusingly arrogant. He’s surrounded by an equally good ensemble; it’s a treat to see Elaine Paige, Richard Wilson and Bernard Cribbins all playing the rabble of ageing outsiders on the fringe of the events, gurning like it’s a panto.
In many ways, it is. Their scenes take place in bizarre pub sets that seem eons away from the imposing appearance of Athens – it’s like switching from a comic book to an episode of EastEnders – but that mish-mash adds to the otherwordly vibe, while the cast ground the spectacle in more relatable mundanity. Behind the camera, David Kerr is no stranger to uniting the unusual and the everyday, having worked on Inside No. 9 and That Mitchell and Webb Look, and he brings Davies’ bonkers ideas to life with the feel of an epic, surreal patchwork – the use of CGI is liberal, but smart, giving enough sparkle to the completely out-there elements without becoming cheesy, a balance fostered by Murray Gold’s typically sumptuous soundtrack.
The result feels familiar, but enchantingly fresh: Hannah’s sinister performance means that Theseus has never been more interesting, while the stripped-down plot allows for Shakepeare’s most poetic lines and most entertaining comedy to shine all the brighter – one unexpected touch at the finish, meanwhile, reinforces the play’s celebration of love in all its forms. Staying true to the spirit of the text but transforming its appearance entirely? That’s true magic, indeed, and if this feels more like Russell T Davies than Bill Shakespeare at times, that’s no bad thing. A Midsummer Night’s Dream is, above all, a tribute to life and imagination. It’s only right that it should inspire someone else’s vision.
Russell T Davies’ adaptation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream is available to download on pay-per-view services, including BBC Store, iTunes, Amazon Instant Video, TalkTalk TV Store, Wuaki.tv and Google Play.
Photo: BBC/Des Willie