William Shakespeare died on April 23, 1616. The 400th anniversary of the Bard’s death saw many celebrations of Shakespeare’s life and works. Part of the BBC’s pomp, triumph and revelling in 2016 was an updated version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. But mot updated in the way ShakespeaRe-Told was. This version is still, mostly Shakespeare’s text, but it’s been given a jolt by a past master at reviving franchises.
Russell T. Davies made a name for himself with the popular 1999 TV series Queer as Folk depicting the lives of young gay men in Manchester. Davies went on to revive and revamp the BBC science fiction TV series Doctor Who. The original show had been cancelled back in 1989 and was regarded as a cult classic. Davies’s revived Doctor Who became a global powerhouse – reviving the concept of Saturday night family TV on the BBC.
Davies was just the right person to cast his spell yet again. This particular spell also touched a disturbing chord in the politics of 2016 and the years that followed.
But in order to talk about this production and its departure from the traditional text, I'll need to borrow a catchphrase from Doctor Who -- "Spoilers!"
When Russell T. Davies (or RTD as Who fans are wont to call him) brought back Doctor Who, there was a small but vocal group on the internet who were outraged. The television landscape had changed while the show was off the air. This group of fans had no trouble willingly suspending their disbelief to accept time-travelling aliens with two hearts or “living, bubbling lumps of hate” encased in metal shells. But when faced with a diverse cast that represented people outside their window – Black characters, gay characters – theses fans went nuts. They moaned about his so-called "gay agenda". These fans second-guessed Davies’s choices “Did he have to make X character gay?” Yes, yes he did. And he was right to do so.
And Davies was even more right to add a diverse cast to this version of the Dream. Shakespeare’s plays have long been open for re-interpretation. And more than most, LGBTQ+ themes surface in modern interpretations of the Dream. It’s right that Titania and Hippolyta should share a kiss. (You did see my spoiler warning in the intro, right? That wasn't just a Doctor Who reference.)
It’s a fine twist on the tale that Demetrius is briefly bewitched by Lysander instead of Helena. The 2019 Bridge Theatre / NT Live version features similar confusions. It’s a modern twist on Shakespeare’s own magical anarchy. Audiences respond well to LGBTQ+ content in their Shakespeare, as well they should.
And if the show ends with Fisayo Akinade’s Flute dancing romantically with a handsome, black-clad, red-arm-band-wearing blond Nazi, then …
What? What? What?
Nazis? This is more problematic. Not the gay content. It’s the Nazi content that’s the problem.
Long a fan of the Dream, Davies saw a problem with Theseus – the duke of Athens was boring. He was an instrument in the lovers’ dilemma, had some witty remarks about the rude mechanicals and has a great turn of phrase “the lunatic, the lover and the poet / Are of imagination all compact” ( a speech sadly truncated in this version because it would not play with the new conception of the duke). But generally, Theseus is not the most memorable character in the Dream.
The solution lay in the “sharp Athenian law” of the play. Many modern interpreters of the Dream have wrestled with the problem of Theseus conquering the Amazons and wedding to the Amazon Queen Hippolyta. Davies drapes Athens in Nazi symbols, and makes Theseus – played with grand menace by John Hannah – a full-on fascist leader. Murray Gold’s music is poke-your-eye-out Wagnerian in the Athens scenes.
It's not a completely new idea. Ian McKellen won great acclaim when updated Richard III to a fascist 1930s Britain draped in Nazi symbolism. But that's a very different sort of play. One expects murderous intent from Richard III, but when Hannah's Theseus plots the death of several characters, that takes it much further than Shakespeare ever did.
This is one Theseus who is not going to blend into the background.
Eleanor Matsuura’s Hippolyta is wheeled into the Athenian court, bound and gagged as if she’s Hannibal Lecter. Philostrate holds up Hippolyta’s speech about her upcoming wedding on a tablet and she delivers the lines as if in a hostage video. Theseus himself uses a tablet to mark Bottom and his friends for death when they start talking back to him in mechanical’s play.
For a moment, you might wonder if Davies has forgotten this is a comedy. But don’t worry, there’s a happy ending. “Jack shall have Jill” (or possibly Gil, in this version.) “Naught shall go ill,” well .. except for Theseus.
While Flute’s Thisbe mourns Bottom’s hilarious on-stage death as Pyramus, Theseus leaves the entertainment to die alone, except for the fairies who cursed him. We see Hippolyta freed and all happily dance away in the bergamask.
Except there’s one problem. Fascist regimes are not the product of one man alone. Sure, Theseus is gone, but what about those who supported him? Admittedly, colour-blind casting means this is apparently a fascist regime without bigotry. Flute seems comfortably out of the closet with his fellow mechanicals. And when Demetrius stands forth, he’s wearing a Nazi uniform.
Having watched several versions of the Dream in the course of a week, I’d say that Theseus is not the true problem with productions of the Dream. He’s usually well-cast if somewhat inconsequential. The bigger problem are the four Athenians – often the dumping ground for flavour of the month actors or those with lesser talents. But thanks to Davies’s reshaping of the tale and some excellent casting choices, all four characters capture our attention and don’t let go.
If Paapa Essiedu’s Demetrius stands forth dressed as if he’s about to sing “Springtime for Hitler”, then Matthew Tennyson’s bushy-haired, scarf-wearing Lysander stands forth as if he’s cosplaying Harry Potter. (Tennyson has experience with the Dream. He was Puck in the 2013 stage version at Shakespeare's Globe.) Lysander might not support the Athenian state, but when he and Hermia steal away, it’s not to overthrow the government. They seem uninterested in the broader affairs. When this production plays up the Nazi imagery to the hilt, but offers us modern youths for the four lovers … well, they look a bit selfish.
The Athenian lovers often seem a slight bit self-absorbed. but rarely are the stakes quite as high. The problems of four little people don't amount to a hill of beans in this world.
Speaking a high stakes, Davies takes the comic fight between the lovers and turns it to drama when Demetrius throws Prisca Bakare's Hermia off a cliff.
And finally, there’s Helen – a character who can often be the strongest or the weakest link in the Athenian chain. But Kate Kennedy needn’t worry about her Helen’s place in history. She plays a Helena who dotes in idolatry, a Helena who feels profoundly wronged, and then guilty over her own reactions.
And then finally, Helena gets to take joy in her happy ending. We've been taken on a more exciting ride with these four lovers than usual, and it was worth it.
Bottom is another character who can easily steal the show if the other performances aren’t up to scratch. And it’s no fault of actor Matt Lucas if his Bottom doesn’t quite get away with Grand Theft Theatre. The rest of the cast is just too strong for that to happen.
Lucas is very entertaining in the role, and I particularly like the voice he shifts into when he tries to be a master thespian. Some Bottoms are in a constant state of bluster, but Lucas shifts from being a bloke palling around with his mates to a master of ham acting.
And what mates he has. All the Rude Mechanicals in this production are outstanding. Elaine Paige (the original Eva in Evita and Grizabella in Cats) leads the merry band as the gender-flipped Mistress Quince.
Javone Prince excels as Snug and his lion alter ego. Fisayo Akinade’s Flute brings pathos to his acting performance as Thisbe, and it is also rewarded with a few Davies added moments of romance. And then, there are two more national treasures in the group: Richard Wilson as Starveling and Bernard Cribbins as Snout.
It took awhile to get here, but this production’s magic (and its faults) have little to do with the fairy kingdom. Again, that’s more a testament to the interest of everything else going on.
The fairies run the gamut in appearances – some like Maxine Peake’s proud Titania appear mostly human – although a powerful and commanding human to be sure. Others like Nonso Anozie’s Oberon and Hiran Abeysekera’s Puck have horns. Perhaps there’s a touch of Pan’s Labyrinth in this fairy kingdom. Vivid colours shine forth in the nighttime setting.
Davies not only shortens Shakespeare’s text, but he reassigns lines. It’s Titania, not a nameless fairy, who identifies Puck as Robin Goodfellow, an exchange that’s been moved to the middle of the fairy rulers’ confrontation. Oberon, not Puck, makes the famous observation “What fools these mortals be!” And for his part, Puck steals the line “Why should Titania cross her Oberon?”
Good question, and it’s one that Russell T. Davies doesn’t really answer. The subplot about Oberon and Titania arguing over an Indian boy has been cut from this production. Admittedly, that plot point seems more problematic in the early 21st century than in the late 16th century.
Sri Lankan actor Hiran Abeysekera is a superb Puck. He has a broad grin that is equal parts mischievous and malicious. He flashes this grin whether he’s taking delight in the squabbling Athenian lovers, making true love appear in the final dance, or watching the lonely death of Theseus. It’s all a laugh to this Puck.
So, what to make of this A Midsummer Night’s Dream? There’s much to delight in. The actors are great. The story doesn’t sag. But everything is dialed up to eleven. It’s designed to please in the moment.
The fascist motif is certainly powerful. But if you think it through, what does that say about everyone else? Sure, Hippolyta was in chains. Philostrate was clearly afraid of his boss. But did everyone else just accept this state of affairs?
Perhaps something was sacrificed to get a bunch of powerful moments. On the other hand, we’re definitely left with a lot of powerful moments, and that’s no bad thing.
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
2005: ShakespeaRe-Told: A Midsummer Night's Dream, written by Peter Bowker and directed by Ed Fraiman with Dean Lennox Kelly as Puck
Did you enjoy this article? Please consider supporting the site by visiting my Ko-Fi page to make a small donation to help cover my costs to run the site. Any support you can give is greatly appreciated.