Puck on Film

by Allen W. Wright

A Midsummer Night's Dream (1996)

Directed by Adrian Noble
Channel Four Films

1996's A Midsummer Night's Dream

Back at the RSC

This film is based off Adrian Noble’s 1994 stage production at the Royal Shakespeare Company. Noble was then the artistic director of the RSC, during one of the company’s more troubled periods. Several major roles including Alex Jennings as Oberon/Theseus, Barry Lynch as Puck/Philostrate and Desmond Barrit as Nick Bottom Those who were at Stratford in 1994, joined the London production in 1995 in preparation for the American tour. Most notable of these additions is Lindsay Duncan as Titania/Hippolyta.

As you might guess from those credits, the version of the Dream follows the common theatrical tradition of doubling up the roles of the Athenian and the Fairy courts. And this is by far the most theatrical of the productions I’ve reviewed up to now. So theatrical that Noble needed to add an additional narrative device to justify the adaptation of his non-natural stage design into the naturalistic medium of film. 

Osheen Jones as the child in the 1996 Dream

A Dream Within a Dream

For the film version, Noble adds a new character, a young boy, played by Osheen Jones, who has fallen asleep while reading a copy of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. So, this is tale is yet another dream within a dream.

It’s a useful device to allow a fairy forest not made of trees but of hanging light bulbs. The brightly coloured costumes, non-naturalistic sets and the thematic and magical use of umbrellas would have seemed unusual in most film treatments. 

And yet, this must be a troubled child for Noble’s Dream is filled with eroticism. Puck steals a kiss from Oberon. And the child witnesses Titania humping the transformed Bottom on her magical red umbrella bed.

Lindsay Duncan as Titania

Part of a Tradition

This film shows that the RSC was keeping up its proud tradition from the Peter Hall days of speaking every Shakespearean line with perfect clarity so that it did not seem forced or strange. The meaning of the words is clear to us.

Noble also tips his hat to times past. Puck’s yellow coveralls (or overalls) and his Athenian counterpart Philostrate’s yellow robes hark back to Peter Brook’s ground-breaking 1970 stage production where Puck was similarly clad in yellow. 

In fact, there’s a bit of an on-screen hand-off between the Pucks of 1970 and 1996. John Kane – Puck in Peter Brook’s production – plays Peter Quince here, director of the mechanical’s acting troupe. A green umbrella flies from the hands of the mechanicals and lands in Puck’s hand.

Barry Lynch’s Puck is more the mischievous sprite than the vicious punk of some versions. And yet, seen through the eyes of a child, the trickster can evoke fear as well as wonder.

There's a sexual charge between Puck and Oberon as Oberon describes the bewitching properties of the flower. Before Puck declares he'll 'll put a girdle round about the Earth, he plants a passionate kiss on Oberon. A Midsummer Night's Dream is open to LGBTQ+ interpretations, partly the character of Puck.

Barry Lynch as Puck

A Solid Production

If Noble’s Dream is not the most memorable version of the play, it’s certainly an enjoyable one. The cast is uniformly good.

There are some pleasant surprises in this tale. We’re all familiar with Nick Bottom’s transformation into an ass, but in this version he transforms into an actor as well. For a brief shining moment, Desmond Barrit loses his comic bluster and displays heart-felt grief as his Pyramus mourns the supposed death of Thisbe. Of course, Bottom’s restored to his usual hammy self when takes Pyramus’s death scenes over the top as is traditional.

Modern audiences might be familiar with the actor who plays Demetrius. Kevin Doyle also plays the hapless footman Moseley on Downton Abbey. And we see some of Moseley’s luckless comedy when Demetrius tries unsuccessfully to perform martial arts on Puck.

Barry Lynch as Puck

Magic endures

Adrian Noble lets film audiences see some of the magic of theatre – a trick that might seem more commonplace today in the age of cinema screenings of plays.

In additional to the theatrical staging, the device of doubling the actors gets a pay-off most common on stage. After Bottom and the mechanicals have performed their play, a brief moment passes between Bottom and Queen Hippolyta. The walls behind Lindsay Duncan’s dual roles of Hippolyta and Titania break down, and for a fleeting moment she recognizes her enchanted lover.

Such magic is most often done on stage … or in a dream. 


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