Russell T Davies has not so much adapted William Shakespeare’s much loved sylvan comedy A Midsummer Night’s Dream as taken it by the scruff of the neck, shaken it down and given it a radically new interpretation for the modern age. This is a stunningly ballsy free form interpretation, replete with stirring and fabulous music from Murray Gold and some stunning CGI effects….
It is Shakespeare reimagined for the Doctor Who generation – and the Doctor Who team (including Peter Capaldi, Steven Moffat and executive Brian Minchin who were on hand at last night’s screening to wish it well) also played a role in its stunning visuals (more of that later).
Crunched down from the usual three hours to ninety action-packed minutes, Davies has dispensed with a lot of the explanatory text from Shakespeare’s story of fleeing lovers, a tyrannical Duke and magical woodland hijinks where order is restored thanks to some mischief from the fairies.
His Athenian forest is a scary, dangerous and cold place and the fairies do everything but flutter prettily. Maxine Peake’s Queen Titania is a punkishly attired ball-breaker, furious with Oberon, (Nonso Anozie) who is himself none too pleased with her supposed romantic dalliances.
Puck, Moth, Cobweb, Mustardseed and Peaseblossom may have nice names in the source text but here they are hissing, snarling warriors, ready to do the bidding of their overlords (and ladies).
And the look – goodness it is stunning. Davies has enlisted the help of the Doctor Who special effects team in Roath Lock and the results are dazzling. Oberon doesn’t wave a wand, he rains down an electrical storm. Hiran Abeysekera’s Puck disappears and flies around the woods as a golden ball of light spreading fairy dust behind him. The love potions planted into the eyes look (and there is no other word for it) magical.
The CGI team also did some excellent work creating a panoramic visual of the world – we move from the fascist court high on the hill, over the town and into the woods in seconds. When it rains in this world it does so in buckets.
The rude mechanicals who are in the play preparing a play for Theseus’ wedding provide more traditional and homely fare. Led by Matt Lucas’ delightfully bumptious Bottom, they are as engaging and sweet a bunch as we could hope to expect; even Elaine Paige turns up as a jolly Mistress Quince, ably supported by Richard Wilson (Starveling) , Bernard Cribbins (Snout) and Javone Prince (Snug).
But these are probably not the moments that will get talked about.
There is a section where the male lovers Demterius (Paapa Essiedu) and Lysander (Matthew Tennyson) fall in love with each other for a few brief seconds. Shakespeare’s text seems to imagine entirely heterosexual passions involving Helena (Kate Kennedy) and Hermia (Prisca Bakare). But not here. And there is a passionate kiss at the end between two leading female characters which is certainly not in the source text either.
But it is in the character of Theseus King of Athens that Davies has really taken this play and run away with it. And run. And run some more.
Played by John Hannah, the stern authoritarian figure of most Shakespearean productions is turned into a figure of intense cruelty and evil intent. Decked in Fascist military uniform his imminent marriage to Hippolyta (Eleanor Matsuura), the Queen of the Amazons, is not the happy union, to put it mildly. She opens the action being wheeled in on a trolley, her mouth gagged, resentful and furious at her intended who seems capable of killing with the stroke of a finger on his iPad (yes he has one of those he is so evil). There are also armed stormtroopers in scenes which display every trope of jackbooted despotism…and some.
And in the end – which I will not spoil – Theseus gets his comeuppance in a way which makes sense given what has come before. It also means we don’t have to sit though the (usually quite dull) final moments as the court mock the awful play put on by Bottom and co. In Davies’ version we see a righting of wrongs and a spectacular invasion of the mortal world by their fairies. It is quite some scene, full of colour and washed with Murray Gold’s amazing score. Not everybody will like it but I certainly did.
Davies used last night’s screening to defend his interpretation. He said Shakespeare purists ought to be “perfectly happy” with the lesbian kiss. “To be a Shakespeare purist means you are in love with imagination and drama and truth and fun and honesty. Really. Shakespeare idiots would have a problem – that’s what plays do, they reinvent themselves constantly. The next generation will do a new one. If you have got a problem, line up and kiss me instead.”
And I agree with him. While there is nothing in Shakespeare scholarship to suggest quite such a strong interpretation, Davies certainly runs with his vision of a play he has clearly loved ever since he was a young boy playing Bottom in a school production, and it makes sense.
Of course what happens at the end will annoy some purists. But Davies has not changed a word of the text – he has just reordered and reimagined it. And this makes for a production which will make you look at a much-loved play with fresh eyes.
Shakespeare belongs to us all, it is constantly being revived, as Davies says. This is valid. I was shocked. But the more I think about Davies’ approach the more I loved it. Bravo RTD and bravo BBC.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream will air on BBC1 at the end of May
Ben has worked as a professional journalist specialising in TV and the arts for nearly twenty years writing for Stage newspaper, Sunday Mirror and the Sunday Times, The Guardian, Evening Standard, Broadcast, Independent and the New Statesman where he wrote a column.