The BBC Television Shakespeare TV series ran from 1978 to 1985 dramatizing all 37 of William Shakespeare’s plays across its seven seasons. It aired on BBC 2 in the UK and on the various PBS stations in the United States. It also played on many classroom VCRs for more than a decade. The intent was to create a Shakespearean canon that could be used by educators.
The first two seasons were tediously conventional in their staging. But by the time the BBC reached A Midsummer Night’s Dream in the fourth season new producer Jonathan Miller had transformed the show, with more inventive staging based off famous paintings.
Taking their cue from producer Jonathan Miller, director Elijah Moshinsky and production designer David Myerscough-Jones looked to 17th century painting for inspiration. For example, Titania’s bower was inspired by Rembrandt's Danaë.
This approach led to a series of beautiful still images, but too often it seemed as if the action was constrained by this conceit – actors not wanting to move too far from the painting-like tableau. It also seemed to dictate some of the artistic choices, for example Cherith Mellor’s Helena looks far more spinsterish than she is usually depicted.
There is a stillness in much of the performances too. Moshinsky had not worked in television until the BBC’s Shakespeare project. His background was in directing opera and plays at the National. However, he could not get great performances out of much of his cast. Instead, it seems like our image of what Shakespearean acting should be like. That sadly isn’t very different from amateur actor Bottom’s attempt to play Hercules by shouting out declamatory statements. It feels important, but it does not feel alive. In this production, Shakespeare’s text seems more alien to us that the clear readings in the RSC tradition of Peter Hall or Peter Brook.
That said, there are a few bright spots. We see inside Lysander, actor Robert Lindsay’s inherent dynamism wanting to burst forth. Geoffrey Palmer invests Peter Quince with that unique Geoffrey Palmer quality that made him a British TV icon for decades. Apparently Palmer’s pomposity was a parody of the outgoing head of the BBC.
Where this production of the Dream shines is in its depiction of the fairies. Although perhaps shine isn’t quite the right word as the fairies are darker and more shadowy than many depictions.
In terms of costuming, the fairies aren’t that removed from the mortals. They aren’t in elaborate costumes such as the 1935 version, nor are they green-hued woodland creatures of the 1968 Dream. Like the humans, these fairies belong to the 17th century, but a more wild and dishevelled bunch than the Athenians. Peter McEnery wears his puffy shirt open, showing off his chest. And Phil Daniels’ Puck wears no shirt at all.
Helen Mirren as Titania (promoted from her role of Titania in the 1968 Dream) is the most valuable player in this production. She seems most at home with the Shakespearean verse – delivering clear and powerful line readings. We see her fierce loyalty for her fairy band, and also the love when she dotes upon Bottom.
Other actors are trying to do Shakespeare justice, but Mirren just does Shakespeare – and does it very well indeed.
Ian Holm’s Puck in the 1968 film of Peter Hall’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream had an element of danger about him. And director Moshinsky wanted his Puck to be menacing too. If Phl Daniels’s Puck does any merry wandering, it’s not as a cheery and harmless fairy. Instead Moshinsky took his inspiration from the punk movement and the character of Alex in A Clockwork Orange.
When listing his pranks, Daniels’s Puck grabs the youthful fairy and violently shakes the creature. Perhaps Puck learned his violence from his master, later in the play Oberon attempts to drown his maybe-not-entirely-faithful servant.
This production can’t escape its original mandate to give us proper Shakespeare – suitable for education more than enjoyment. It’s the artistic equivalent of eating one’s vegetables.
Along with that, there’s the director’s mandate not to present us with the joviality we usually associate with the play. Perhaps that’s why he omits the final two lines of the play.
“Give me your hands, if we be friends,
And Robin shall restore amends.”
This Robin Goodfellow would never restore amends.
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
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
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
1968: A Midsummer Night's Dream, directed by Peter Hall with Ian Holm as Puck
1981: The BBC Television Shakespeare: A Midsummer Night's Dream, directed by Elijah Moshinsky with Phl Daniels as Puck
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