In 2005, the BBC released four 90-minute movies recrafting the plots and characters of Shakespeare plays into modern settings. This is not like a modern-dress stage production of Shakespeare’s play, but an entirely new story – albeit one that homages the original play.
But even in this new tale, Puck, Oberon and Titania have come to play.
The action has shifted from ancient Athens to the holiday retreat Dream Park, based off the popular Centre Parcs chain from the UK. Theo and Polly have booked an event at the park to celebrate their daughter Hermia’s engagement to James Demetrius. Among the guests are Hermia’s best friend Helena. However, Hermia does not love James, and her true love Xander crashes the party. The dilemma of the young lovers exposes the tensions in Polly and Theo’s marriage.
Meanwhile, Nicholas Bottom – a park security guard – dreams of a career in the park’s entertainment division for himself and his chums. The problem is that Bottom isn’t talented or funny.
Fortunately, three fairies – Puck, Oberon and Titania on hand to set all right. But first they need to resolve the dispute between Oberon and Titania.
Dean Lennox Kelly’s Puck is our guide to this transformed tale – dispensing pop wisdom along with his love juice. Puck frequently breaks the fourth wall to comment or clarify the plot. Kelly has a lot of charisma and that helps sell this new take on the Dream.
Puck and his fellow fairies dress in modern clothing, but they still possess magic.
Puck’s still a trickster who delights in mischief, but it seems that he, Oberon and Titania have day jobs. They summon lovers in trouble to the Dream Park to help get their love back on track. In Shakespeare’s play, the fairies involvement in the lovers’ woes was mere happenstance. Here, it’s their duty. This change diminishes the fairies.
Sharon Small makes a good Titania, but the recrafted story deprives her of one of her key moments. There is no Indian boy in this tale, no votaress of Titania’s order for her to mourn. Instead her dispute with Oberon is based largely on him just taking her for granted.
Lennie James plays a flawed fairy king – loud and imperious as we’d expect from many performances. It’s a trait he has in common with Bill Paterson’s Theo. And the two bond as they learn from each other’s faults.
It might hark back to Shakespeare’s original play to blame weather troubles on the dissension between the Fairy King and Queen, but Oberon’s scoffing dismal of Global Warning might be ill-judged.
Actors Bill Paterson (Theo) and Imelda Staunton (Polly) carry most of the acting load for the mortal characters. As such, it’s these characters who depart the most from their literary predecessors. Their ailing romance receives as much attention as the young lovers. And we learn that Oberon helped bring them together years ago.
Johnny Vegas plays Nick Bottom as a wannabe comedian who isn’t really funny. Instead of doing bellowing impressions of Hercules, this Bottom attempts to do impressions of Ricky Gervais’s David Brent and Michael Caine’s various Cockney tough guys. He does not have the support of his fellow mechanicals – sorry, security guards. Simon Day’s Quince seems almost villainous.
When Puck transforms Bottom into an ass, it seems crueller than in Shakespeare’s original.
The answer is no. This isn’t Shakespeare. It borrows from Shakespeare, yes. But then Shakespeare is not merely Plautus Retold or the Holinshed Chronicles Retold? Viewing a work of art solely in terms of its literary antecedents does a disservice both to the original and the new work of art. The musical West Side Story is far more than updated Romeo and Juliet.
For one thing, virtually none of Shakespeare’s poetry remains in this version. There’s an easter egg line or two, such as when Oberon describes the flower Love in Idleness. But most it’s new dialogue. Such as this exchange between Oberon and Puck when the fairy king has discovered his servant has bewitched the wrong lover.
OBERON: Is Puck short for Puck-Up by any chance? This man is still in love with the wrong woman?
PUCK: Hey, you know, no need to...
OBERON: Give me some more love juice, or I’ll give you a midsummer night’s dream where the moon doesn’t shine.
If anything, I’d say this most resembles a Hallmark Christmas Special. For example, A Nashville Christmas Carol also uses a familiar story to craft a new tale. There’s a happy ending and easily dispensed moral lessons. And yet, those Hallmark specials have a certain charm of their own, as does this.
Anything with Imelda Staunton in the cast is going to be worth at least some of your time. And Dean Lennox Kelly is a charming remix of Puck.
Kelly would go on to play William Shakespeare himself (as a self-proud rock star like figure) in Doctor Who a couple years later. And then, this one-time Robin Goodfellow has ties to another literary Robin as he plays Robin Hood’s father in an episode of the 2006-2009 TV series.
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 Phil 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
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