Russell T Davies: A Midsummer Night’s Dream changed my life

The screenwriter reinvented Doctor Who - and now he's achieved his 42-year dream of remaking Shakespeare's comedy

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This play changed my life.

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When I was 11, my brand-new Swansea comprehensive school was closed down in a great 1970s scandal: the curse of High Alumina Cement.  It was discovered that the whole place had been built out of HAC, which had a nasty tendency to collapse. So while the school was torn down and rebuilt, 2,000 pupils were farmed out to temporary sites built out of of portakabins and mud.

But what about the school play?  My drama teacher, Cecily Hughes, was undaunted.  In fact, she was inspired.  One part of the building was HAC-free, and so she declared, “We’ll do it in the gym!”  And that’s how we found ourselves putting on Shakespeare in the round, stripped of its formality – no stage, no wings, no proscenium arch.  The play became wild, open and free, all noise and cartwheeling, with fairies leaping about on the bars and vaulting over gym-horses.  It was glorious!  Cecily cast me as Nick Bottom, the Weaver.  The South Wales Evening Post called me “a born comic,” although it would be ridiculous if I still had that clipping after all these years. Ahem.

But the point is, I loved Cecily.  This was an absurdly strict school; the headmaster ripped drawings of a naked man and woman out of our biology textbooks, in case they gave us ideas. Clearly, that did me the world of good. But in the middle of this, Cecily – and we knew her first name, which was rare for a teacher in those days – was a voice of light and life. For me, those drama lessons represented an escape. Through Cecily, I discovered acting, and drama, and comedy, and that most brilliant of things, the friendship of a company tasked with something to create. She even made us rehearse on Saturday mornings, and as a result, I think I’ve worked every weekend since. But she instilled in me a love of drama that’s never gone away. It became my whole life.

Cecily prompted me to join the West Glamorgan Youth Theatre, run by a man called Godfrey Evans, another remarkable genius and mentor. Within a few years, Godfrey had me adapting and directing a production of David Copperfield, starring a young lad called Michael Sheen, I wonder what happened to him? But throughout this, the Dream kept persisting. Godfrey cast me as Flute when I was 13, then Lysander when I was 18. When I was 21, I directed my own production in the Sherman Arena Theatre, Cardiff. And I swear, back then – the arrogance of youth! – I said to myself, this would be great on TV.  I’m going to do it, one day…

All those Dreams were different. The school play was hilarious and physical. The second version was formal and Elizabethan, in doublet and hose. The third strolled across the stage like a 1920s anyone-for-tennis comedy. I think it’s important to demonstrate to a new, young audience today that there’s no such thing as a fixed Dream, just as there’s no definitive Tempest or Hamlet or King Lear. These plays live forever because they’re forever alive. They are what we bring to them. And every new generation wants to grab hold of it and say, “No, like this!”

For this version on BBC1, I’ve been a little tougher with the text. Though it’s not a rewrite, we haven’t got the Mechanicals putting on a rap to celebrate the birth of Princess Charlotte. This production is the original play, the proper text, complete with “Ill met by moonlight, proud Titania.” It’s just been cut down to a 90 minute duration, with the added bonus of six or seven lines from other Shakespeare plays dropped into the action. All that I’ve brought is my own take on things, my interpretation of events, just as any director in the theatre would do.

I’m happy to reinvent this material, because that’s been the process for hundreds of years. That’s what fiction does, change change [much has been made of a lesbian kiss at the end of this play]. Shakespeare famously sourced his stuff from all sorts of myths and legends and masques. For example, in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, we get the story of Pyramus and Thisbe. That’s an ancient yarn, originally told by Ovid. A tragedy of two dead lovers. And what did Shakespeare do with that sacred text?  He turned it into a farce!

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And the story’s had an extra 400 years of life as a result. It’s the same with Hippolyta – Shakespeare made her simply Queen of the Amazons. But in my version, from the very first scene, there’s clearly something supernatural about her – and that’s not a new invention, that’s going way back, to the myths before Shakespeare, when Hippolyta was the daughter of Ares, God of War. You see? These things are always changing. If you don’t change, you die.