Puck on Film

by Allen W. Wright

A Midsummer Night's Dream (1968)

Directed by Peter Hall
Filmways, Royal Shakespeare Enterprises

1968's A Midsummer Night's Dream

A Strange Dream

This film is a collaboration between England’s Royal Shakespeare Company and American TV juggernaut Filmways, best-known for bringing such sitcom hits to CBS as The Beverly Hillbillies, Green Acres and Mister Ed. With such parents, this production should be, to quote Theseus from the play “hot ice and wondrous strange snow”.

But there is little need to “find the concord of this discord”. There is no trace of the American sitcom in its DNA. Seeing the semi-naked green-hued fairies starkly delivering Shakespearean dialogue must have seemed strange to American CBS viewers on February 9, 1969 who found this production in place of the regularly scheduled Mission: Impossible. Even stranger still is that there were only three commercial breaks in that airing, all sponsored by Xerox.

This version’s reception by American TV audiences and English cinema audiences was decidedly mixed, although there are riches to find here. 

Puck and Bottom from the 1959 Shakespeare Memorial Theatre Dream

Peter Hall's 1959 and 1962 Dream

This film adaptation is directed by Peter Hall – one of the most important figures in 20th century theatre history. In his mid-20s, Hall directed the first English language production of Samuel Beckett’s ground-breaking Waiting for Godot. In the 1960s, as artistic director, Hall transformed Stratford’s Shakespeare Memorial Theatre into the mighty Royal Shakespeare Company. He first directed many of Harold Pinter’s modern dramas such as 1965’s The Homecoming at the RSC’s Aldwych Theatre in London and then on Broadway. Pinter followed Hall to the National Theatre in the 1970s. Hall, as the National’s second artistic director, oversaw the company’s move to its present theatre complex on London’s South Bank. He also spent several years as the artistic director of the Glyndebourne Festival Opera and later formed the Peter Hall Company.

Hall first directed A Midsummer Night’s Dream at Stratford’s Shakespeare Memorial Theatre in 1959, the year before he was to take over as the theatre’s artistic director and transform it into the RSC. The production included famous film actor Charles Laughton as Nick Bottom and Ian Holm as Puck. Holm would carry on in the same role in Hall’s later versions.  

The set for the 1959 Dream as that of an English manor house, something which might have inspired the filming locations of the 1968 movie. Hall’s 1959 Dream was also filmed for American TV, although it didn’t make it to air. 

In 1962, Hall revived the Dream at the Royal Shakespeare Company. Several of this production’s cast would play the same roles in the 1968 film. Ian Holm was Puck once again, Ian Richardson was Oberon, Judi Dench was Titania, and Diana Rigg was Helena.      

David Warner, Helen Mirren, Diana Rigg and Michael Jayston in A Midsummer Night's Dream

A Dream Cast

The 1968 film version included some of the finest actors from the Royal Shakespeare Company. In addition to the actors carried over from the previous stage versions, David Warner (perhaps the definitive Hamlet of the 1960s) joined as Lysander, Michael Jayston (previously Laertes to Warner’s Hamlet) is Demetrius, Paul Rogers (who played Max in Pinter’s The Homecoming) is Bottom, and a young Helen Mirren is Hermia.

At the time, American audiences would have been most familiar with Diana Rigg who in between her stage and film roles as Helena had become an international sensation as Emma Peel in the adventure TV series The Avengers.

And yet, even people born a quarter century after this film was shot would now recognize much of the cast. Viewers who don’t know Rigg for her iconic Avengers role might remember her as the scheming Olenna Tyrell in HBO’s Game of Thrones.

Ian Richardson delighted TV audiences as the almost Shakespearean villain Francis Urquhart in the original British TV version of House of Cards (available on Netflix along with its modern American remake). David Warner is a welcome presence in any number of TV shows and movies (including 1997’s Titanic and two Star Trek movies). Ian Holm appeared in 1979’s Alien – a film with a long shelf life. And younger generations would know him as the older Bilbo Baggins in Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit film trilogies. Judi Dench and Helen Mirren are screen icons from many beloved movies and TV shows.

But their later successful film and TV careers is mere coincidence. At the time, these were some of the finest stage actors the Royal Shakespeare Company had to offer the world. When Peter Hall re-birthed Stratford’s theatre as the RSC, he brought along John Barton to improve the way actors spoke Shakespeare. Barton and Hall played very close attention to text, and their actors spoke the words “trippingly on the tongue” (to quote Hamlet’s advice to the Player King) in a way that would be understandable and clear to modern audiences without be jarringly modern.

There would be no Warner Brothers studio players struggling with the text as there had been in the 1935 version of the Dream.

Instead, the struggles came from crawling around in the undergrowth of the location film. It was noisy and most of the dialogue was re-recorded in the studio afterwards. As Hall himself remarks in his autobiography, “As a consequence, it is a beautifully spoken Dream.”

Ian Holm as Puck and Paul Rogers as Bottom

A Non-Summery Midsummer

Hall’s Dream is not the operatic, almost silent film fantasy of the 1935 version. Nor is it a sun-drenched version. Athens is Compton Verney House in Warwickshire, and the forest scenes look like they were filmed in a similar estate.

The look is sparse, muddy and somewhat cold. Hall had delayed filming until autumn because he wanted the later season to reflect the weather changes brought about by Oberon and Titania’s quarrelling. But the American funding was late in coming, and so instead the film was shot in October. This is not an idyllic vision of the Dream.

Ian Richardson as Oberon and Judi Dench as Titania

Wild Fairies

Hall’s main fairies aren’t balletic or dainty, but are creatures of rough nature They are clad in green makeup with the red exaggerated on the red lips and tongue. The lesser fairies such as Cobweb, Peaseblossom and Mustardseed are played by children.

They appear and disappear in quick jump cuts. It is a trick not just used to suggest their ability to travel “swifter than the moon’s sphere”. When Titania gives her speech about how her argument with Oberon has caused the seasons “to change their wonted liveries”, there are a succession of quick cuts, as if the environment is reshaping itself with each line spoken. The fairies seem to exist in a special relationship with time.

Ian Holm as Puck in 1968's A Midsummer Night's Dream ">

Ian Holm's Puck

Ian Holm wags and clucks his tongue as Puck. He is, as Shakespeare’s text says, a mischievous sprite. But it is a far cry from Mickey Rooney’s childish Puck in the 1935 film.

No, Holm’s Robin Goodfellow seems an all together more dangerous figure, retaining some of the menace for Holm’s Lenny in The Homecoming by Harold Pinter.

Ian Richardson's Oberon

Ian Richardson's Oberon

Diana Rigg as Helena

Diana Rigg's Helena

In Our Faces

That Oberon, Titania and Puck turn to camera in close-up and monologue makes sense. But Hall employs the same trick with the mortals too. The effect is jarring, but perhaps a bit too much so after a time. When it works though – such as emphasizing Rigg’s melancholic Helena – it definitely works. But the audience finds little chance to relax. It’s as if Hall is reaching through the camera to say “I’m not going to give you pleasant dreams.”

The combination of naturalism with non-natural tricks feels very much of the late 1960s. In Peter Hall’s estimation, the film looks very much of its time. And that time was short indeed as it was soon to be overshadowed by another A Midsummer Night's Dream, albeit one not so cleanly caught on film.

Ian Holm's Robin shall restore amends
Puck and Oberon from Peter Book's 1970 A Midsummer Night's Dream

That Other Peter’s RSC Dream

One thing that might mar the cinematic reputation of this film is that no long after its release the Royal Shakespeare Company staged a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream that is hailed as perhaps the most influential Shakespeare production of the 20th century. Director Peter Brook staged his Dream not in a manor house or a forest, but in an empty white box.

John Kane’s yellow-robed Puck performs his fairy magic via circus tricks, such as descending from the ceiling on trapezes or pursuing the Athenian lovers around on stilts.
This production was recorded – including for Japanese television, but none of the existing recordings are of true broadcast quality. Brook had been approached about a film version, but decided that it would rob the theatrical experience of its magic.

And yet, while Peter Brook’s Dream might not be captured on film, it did capture the imagination of those who saw it in its original run or the subsequent touring productions. Many later versions of the play owe a great debt to it, whether in bestowing the directors to reinvent the play or in direct homages to Brook’s staging. 

Where to go from here:



1981: The BBC Television Shakespeare: A Midsummer Night's Dream, directed by Elijah Moshinsky with Phl Daniels as Puck


1996: A Midsummer Night's Dream, directed by Adrian Noble with Barry Lynch as Puck

1999: William Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, directed by Michael Hoffman with Stanley Tucci as Puck

Modern Versions

2005: ShakespeaRe-Told: A Midsummer Night's Dream, written by Peter Bowker and directed by Ed Fraiman with Dean Lennox Kelly as Puck

2016: A Midsummer Night's Dream, adapted by Russell T. Davies and directed David Kerr with Hiran Abeysekera as Puck

2017: A Midsummer Night's Dream, written and directed by Casey Wilder Mott with Avan Jogia as Puck

Cinema Broadcasts of Live Theatre

2013: A Midsummer Night's Dream (Shakespeare's Globe), directed by Dominic Dromgoole with Matthew Tennyson as Puck

2014: Julie Taymor's A Midsummer Night's Dream, directed by Julie Taymor with Kathryn Hunter as Puck

2019: A Midsummer Night's Dream (Bridge Theatre / National Theatre Live), directed by Nicholas Hytner with David Moorst as Puck

2021: A Midsummer Night's Dream (Stratford Festival / StratFest@Home), directed by Peter Pasyk with Trish Lindström as Puck



1935: A Midsummer Night's Dream, directed by Max Reinhardt and William Dieterle with Mickey Rooney as Puck

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