Is Russell T Davies about to do for Shakespeare what he did for Doctor Who?

The BBC's new adaptation of A Midsummer Night's Dream from Russell T Davies is, just like Doctor Who, a beautifully updated classic

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It seems fair to say that the bustling Roath Lock Studios in Cardiff is the House that Russell T Davies built. Sure, the Welsh writer departed Doctor Who before its new state-of-the-art home was built in 2011, but it was his revival of the British sci-fi classic that led to its breakout success, international acclaim and, well ability to have massive studios built for it in South Wales.

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In fact, as he revealed while giving RadioTimes.com and other journalists a tour of the premises last year (the Tardis tucked neatly alongside an enchanted forest and a building away from a Casualty ward), the building even has a corridor named after him. A home from home indeed. 

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So perhaps it was no surprise that for his long-gestating passion project, an adaptation of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Davies would take it straight to his spiritual home, where he’d had such success with another risky project.

“It’s no accident, to say the obvious thing, of me bringing her to the Doctor Who world, to the set builders and the prosthetics designers and the CGI people who have huge experience in making this sort of stuff,” Davies says during filming. “It was the only place in the land I would have brought this.”

And of course, this had the side effect of giving the new Midsummer Night’s Dream a significant infusion of Doctor Who DNA, aided by the inclusion of current Who producer Brian Minchin and longtime series composer Murray Gold.

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Left to right: Charlotte Blake (Cobweb), Marlene Madenge (Mustardseed), Nonso Anozie (Oberon), Maxine Peake (Titania), Matt Lucas (Bottom), Hiran Abeysekera (Puck), Varada Sethu (Peaseblossom) and Tia Benbow-Hart (Moth)

Add that to the fact that half the cast have turned up in Doctor Who in recent years (including Matt Lucas, Bernard Cribbins, Nonso Anonzie, Colin McFarlane, Eleanor Matsuura and Richard Wilson) and that former Doctor (and Shakespearean actor) David Tennant actually helped Davies with the film’s development, and this whole thing begins to look more and more like a reunion for Davies’ time at the controls of the Tardis.

Hell, even the purpose-built “Trap Street” where Jenna Coleman’s Clara met her end in the most recent Doctor Who series makes an appearance, subbing for the ‘common’ parts of Shakespeare’s Athens.

“It’s great that were doing it with Russell and the Doctor Who hit-making factory,” Maxine Peake (who plays Titania) says. These words are echoed by many other castmates we speak to on the day.

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John Hannah as Theseus

Still, this Dream is far more than a Doctor Who clone with some fairies thrown in. It’s a fun interpretation of the play smartly updated for a modern audience, with great first-time performances from many young cast members and an brave visual style. 

However, it is true that when watching the new adaptation you immediately feel the influence Doctor Who has had. As the Murray Gold score blares out and a sharp-suited tyrant stalks down a corridor accompanied by black-visored goons, you’d be forgiven for thinking you’d been transported back in time six years, and in many ways the drama is all the better for it.

Even Davies’ new interpretation of the fairies seem straight out of his Who heyday, with the snarling, leather-bound creatures (see below) bearing more than a passing resemblance to the Futurekind, a devolved species of human he created for 2007 episode Utopia. If Channel 4’s Cucumber was a spiritual successor to Queer As Folk, then this new Midsummer Night’s Dream is definitely a follow-up to Davies’ other main strand of work, fun and fantastical action-comedy on a massive scale.

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But obviously as Davies himself says, that’s no bad thing – because sometimes Shakespeare needs all the help it can get at appealing to a wider audience.

“In some ways it is similar to Doctor Who, in taking something that’s loved and sometimes misremembered, and putting new life into it,” he says. “And having had a chance to think about it for 30 or 40 years as well sort of does feel similar to that.” 

“I think it is similar to what you did when you brought Doctor Who back actually,” agrees producer Brian Minchin, “because everyone thought that was gonna be wobbly sets and pompous.”

“Or boring, or niche, or small,” adds Davies. “And it’s my job somehow, part of my job, to open these things up and say look, come and watch this everyone.”

In trying to make this Midsummer Night’s Dream popular, Davies has cut some dialogue (bringing it down from two hours to 90 minutes) and a few plotlines (most notably the “Indian Boy” warring fairies Oberon and Titania fight over in the original) – but it seems safe to say that the Doctor Who parallels aren’t a complete coincidence in this regard either. To what extent is he trying to attract that audience?

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Davies with director David Kerr

“Well in the sense that Doctor Who is primetime and hugely successful and gorgeous, it’s very much in that vein,” he says, “and I hope that same audience comes along, that big family audience.”

For some, A Midsummer Night’s Dream will just be another adaptation of Shakespeare along the lines of the recent Hollow Crown run, but for others it’ll be a welcome reminder of the powers of the man who brought one of the BBC’s most popular shows into mainstream culture.

It’s not Doctor Who, but it definitely shares its madcap spirit – and it doesn’t seem like a comparison Davies will ever be annoyed to hear about his work.

“I’m happy if we’re paired with it in that field, it’s brilliant!” he says happily.

“After all, it’s the best show on telly.”

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A Midsummer Night’s Dream is on BBC1 tonight (Monday 30th May) from 8.30pm