Puck on Film

by Allen W. Wright

A Midsummer Night's Dream (2017)

Written and Directed by Casey Wilder Mott
Empyrean Pictures / 5B Productions / Brainstorm Media

2017 A Midsummer Night's Dream - the modern Los Angeles adaptation

The Hollywood Shakespeare

First-time film director Casey Wilder Mott debuted his modern-day updating of A Midsummer Night's Dream at the 2017 Los Angeles Film Festival, and it achieved wider distribution the following year.

We've seen the story's events refashioned in many different contexts. But in this case, the change in location takes into account the change of genre. 

In a movie version, it makes perfect sense that Athens serves as but another name for Hollywood -- a location so often known as a "dream factory".

Transforming the Tale

The 2017 film version of A Midsummer Night's Dream doesn't start with Shakespeare's Act I. No, instead we join the story in Act IV as Nick Bottom, actor Franz Kranz, awakens from what he believes to be a dream. We see Bottom trying to process events and flashes of the familiar story appear. Finally, Bottom announces that he'll have Peter Quince write a ballad of his dream "and it shall be called..." Cue the opening credits.

The opening credits depict classic images of modern day Los Angeles and Hollywood. Even if you've never been to California, you might recognize the Beverly Hilsl sign or the Griffith Observatory from their appearances in the movies. But there is one change -- to the most iconic image of them all. 

The giant Hollywood sign on the hillside has been replaced by a sign proclaiming this to be Athens. 

Athens instead of Hollywood in the 2017 A Midsummer Night's Dream

The substitution makes sense. 2500 years ago, the Greek city-state of Athens gave rise to the theatrical traditions which Shakespeare's play was built on. But if you want the centre of the cinematic rather than theatrical universe, it has to be Hollywood.

Dukes don't rule over Hollywood -- at least not in the traditional sense. Ted Levine plays Duke Theseus, a personal name rather than a title. He's a movie mogul. And he and bride-to-be Hippolyta (Paz De La Huerta) control the town by controlling its major movie studio. 

Theseus can be portrayed as a decent sort or a harsh tyrant. As much as this Theseus tries to boss Hermia and the others around, he's still infinitely nicer than some of the real-world movie moguls -- vicious players who were finally getting their comeuppance as this film was released.

Ted Levine and Paz De La Huerta as Theseus and Hippolyta

Casey Wilder Mott plays with Shakespeare's text. We first meet Duke Theseus, he rejecting movie pitches on the phone, just as his theatrical counterpart rejected possible plays in Act V.

Then Theseus gets a call from Egeus, complaining of his daughter Hermia. We return to Shakespeare's Act I. Well, more or less.

Hermia, Demetrius, Lysander and Helena in the 2017 Midsummer Night's Dream

The Athenian Youth

The Athenian lovers are reconfigured into recognizable Hollywood archetypes. 

Rachael Leigh Cook plays Hermia Puppet -- a major movie star who poses for photos on the red carpet at movie premieres. She's Julia Roberts, Jodie Foster and Uma Thurman all rolled into one. Or at least famous movie posters of those stars have been reconfigured to feature Hermia or "H-Pup".  Her surname Puppet comes from an insult directed against Hermia in Shakespeare's play.

We see flashes of the daily life of Finn Wittrock's Demetrius. He's an agent in the mold of Tom Cruise's Jerry Maguire with a recreation of that film's famous scene. Except instead of shouting "Show me the money" like Tom Cruise, Demetrius says "Kill all the lawyers!". It's a line from Shakespeare's Henry VI, Part 2

Hamish Linkwater plays a Lysander who is a professional photographer. And he too borrows from another Shakespeare play. Lysander transforms Hamlet's famous soliloquy into encouraging platitudes to his photographic subject. "Who's my rogue? Who's my peasant? Who's my slave?" 

And finally, there's Lily Rabe as screenwriter and poet Helen Maypole. Her surname also comes from an insult in Shakespeare's play. In response to Helena's puppet insult, Hermia taunts Helena's height by calling her a "painted maypole". 

I like the source of the surnames. And I suppose we should be grateful that Mott didn't choose Cankerblossom or  Minimus for their names.

Hermia and Lysander text each other

To reflect the modern world, the Athenian lovers do not always speak their dialogue aloud. Hermia sits alone at a live poetry reading, receiving pings from Demetrius and Lysander. Shakespearean dialogue is delivered as texts and emojis. At one point, Hermia composes a lengthy response to Lysander with Shakespeare's words and then deletes it. Shortening the Bard's words to a mere thumbs-up emoji.

And Helena delivers much of her soliloquy as a live poetry reading. It receives the applause of students from the AFI -- that's Athens Film Institute, not the real-world American Film Institute although their logos are nearly identical.

Bottom and his friends at the Athens Film Institute

The Rude Mechanicals as Film Students

Shakespeare's common labourers turned amateur dramatists have been refashioned by Mott into a bunch of film students. Aside from Kranz's Bottom, the most notable of these aspiring, if not always inspiring, filmmakers is Charity Wakefield as Quince, the nerdy, bespectacled director of their student film. Mott adds an extra romantic pairing to the mix, as Quince clearly loves Bottom, although he doesn't have the wit to see it until after his experiences with the fairies. It does not much to turn Quince's admiration of Bottom in the play into a budding romance.

Their version of Pyramus and Thisbe is a green-screen sci-fi film, riffing on Star Wars or more precisely the 1982 cult classic Dünyayı Kurtaran Adam aka Turkish Star Wars.

Pyramus and Thisbe via Star Wars ">
A Midsummer Night's Dream is notable for having a play within a play. So, it only makes sense that a movie adaptation would have a movie within a movie. It is taking what Shakespeare did for the medium he worked in and adapting it for the new medium.
Matt Lucas as Bottom in the 2016 Dream

The Fairy Kingdom

After we meet the Athenians -- both famous and common -- we finally meet the fairies. Avan Jogia's Puck is a recognizably human fairy. That's not just because he lacks the horns and other non-human physical traits of some versions. 

Just as the inhabitants of Athens have been changed -- translated, if you will -- into recognizable Californian archetypes, so too has Puck. Jogia's Puck is a surfer.

Avan Jogia as Puck

He appears to live in an orange van. At least, that's where he beds the "how now" fairy / fellow surfer that he encounters. This Puck says the famous "I am that merry wanderer of the night" line while in the throws of love-making.

Some Pucks are manic, dangerous and animalistic. But Jogia's Puck is ... well, somewhat serene. Oh, the trickster spirit is still there. But there's also a stillness. And that's not just when he's meditating on mountain tops with the rest of the fairy band. It's a fascinating interpretation of Puck, and one that works quite well with this version.

The fairies on the mountaintop in the 2017 A Midsummer Night's Dream
Oberon and Titania are fiercer than Puck -- angrier and more dangerous. And they outwardly seem less human as the rest, there's an age and power to Saul Williams's Oberon and Mai Doi Todd's Titania. This production -- as with many modern-day ones -- reduces their quarrel to the forgeries of jealousy over Theseus and Hippolyta. There is no mention of the Indian child in this adaptation.
Oberon and Titania as DJs
After their quarrel is resolved, Oberon and Titania appear at Duke Theseus's party. They supply the musical entertainment which is only fitting as Titania herself, Mai Doi Todd, wrote the movie's musical score and Saul Williams is a hip hop artist among his many musical talents.

Strange Magic

Mott's version of the Dream gives Puck's spell an American linguistic update. Since Old English, an ass has meant a pack animal  -- a donkey. And from the medieval times to now, it's been a colloquial expression for an idiot. When Puck transforms Bottom into an ass, we usually expect the actor to wear a donkey's head or more subtly a pair of donkey ears.

But in America, ass means a person's buttocks -- a variation of the British word arse. And since this production is set in America, it's only fitting that Puck turns Bottom into a literal butthead.

Titania and Bottom in the 2017 A Midsummer Night's Dream

A crude joke? Perhaps.

But a more interesting piece of magic occurs when Puck goes to remove the love spell from the Athenians he bewitched. He detects love magic on one he did not enchant -- Demetrius. It turns out that the four Athenian lovers were partying nearby when Cupid's arrow struck the flower. Demetrius touched Cupid's arrow, and the first person he saw was Hermia. 

In this interpretation, it was magic that made Demetrius spurn Helena in the first place. Demetrius is not the " spotted and inconstant man" he was in the original. Mott's interpretation finds an excuse for his bad behaviour, although perhaps at the expense of character growth.

Demetrius and Cupid's Arrow

Puck continues to weave his spell throughout the movie. Yes, there's the magic in Shakespeare's text. But Mott adds even more. Puck sits in the audience while Bottom's student film is played before Duke Theseus and others. It is only when Puck starts to loudly clap that the others join in and fall in love with Bottom's film. It seems to be repayment for cruelly using Bottom. In this version, Robin truly did restore amends.

But then, the whole mess is Puck's fault in the first place. Throughout the movie, we see a pair of hands clacking away at the script. In the final moments we plan across copies of the script, shot lists for this movie, headshots of the actors -- with their real names. And then finally, the architect of this movie moves out from behind the monitors. It was Puck who was pulling everyone's strings.

Avan Jogia as Puck, if we shadows have offended.

Puck's final speech to the audience breaks the fourth wall. It is the playwright -- or perhaps the filmmaker -- justifying and excusing the art. In the end, perhaps all artists are Puck, working their magic on us.

An honest Puck in the 2017 A Midsummer Night's Dream

Concluding thoughts

This is a fun modernization of A Midsummer Night's Dream but still in keeping with Shakespeare's text unlike the ShakespeaRe-Told version or even the more dramatic 2016 Russell T. Davies version.

It cleverly updates aspects of the play to suit the medium of film. It's visually fresh and funny. And all the actors perform the material to a high standard.

Where to go from here:


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

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

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

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