by Alasdair Stuart
Shakespeare would have been a brilliant musician. His plays all hum with this musical sense of composition as characters and plots wrap around and riff on one another. That could be jazz, there’s certainly that genre’s openness and adaptability to a lot of his work. But, for me, Shakespeare was the original punk. Writing on the fly, balancing multiple demands and multiple debts, making it work on the night.
I’d like to think he’d have a lot of fun with Russell T Davies’ defiantly punky version of Midsummer Night’s Dream. The basic premise is the same as usual; Titania and Oberon are warring, married Fae monarchs. Lysander and Hermia are in love, despite Hermia being promised to Demetrius, the head of Lord Theseus’s guard. Helena is in love with Demetrius, who looks right through her. Basically stand the four of them still long enough, and eventually a ’90s coffee shop and laugh track will spontaneously appear. Meanwhile, the Mechanicals – an acting troupe – are rehearsing for an upcoming performance for Theseus, one that, as usual, is completely centered around Bottom – their loudest, most sweet natured and arrogant actor.
So, three plots as usual. But this time two of them work, often brilliantly and one doesn’t for interesting reasons.
Let’s start with the Queen and King. (They’d expect that.) Maxine Peake and Nonso Anonzie are flat out brilliant as the most feral, and at times alien, versions of Titania and Oberon I’ve seen. Peake has always had huge presence and here, with her hair in a Gina Carano-esque battle faux hawk and clad in glittering, chitinous armor she’s on top form. This version of Titania is fierce, intelligent and holds your attention without even having to move. The play undersells her romance with Bottom a little for purists, I suspect, but the comedy is cut in exchange for a much more interesting interpretation of her relationship with Oberon.
Nonso Anonzie is, arguably like Peake, one of those actors who has patiently turned in fantastic work for years while waiting for the role that will make him. This, bluntly, deserves to be it. He’s a towering mountain of a guy and Oberon has never been more physically present and regal than I’ve seen him here. Like Peake, he can command your attention with no movement or speech. Like Peake, he has an instant understanding of the cadence and pattern of the words.
And crucially, like Peake, he’s not hobbled by the script.
Instead of the cruel, bored game that Oberon usually plays, there’s a clear arc here. He’s angry with his wife for infidelity, he punishes her and, this being Shakespeare, it goes wrong. Instead of the bluster and chest beating that Oberon is often reduced to, Anonzie’s version is intelligent, considered and not too proud to ignore mistakes. He doesn’t just erase his problems, he acknowledges them and learns from them. It’s very easy to see Titania and Oberon as a pair of deathless avatars of not-quite humanity playing with each other’s emotions to pass the time. It’s very difficult to see them as a couple who learn and grow through their mistakes. Anonzie in particular shows us that.
Next up, the cast of Friends the 1605 Edition. If a production of Dream is going to have dead weight, it’s often here. Titania and Oberon are great, Bottom, done right, is funny and the couples are the loading screen we have to sit through to get to them.
Or at least that’s what usually happens. Again, Davies sidesteps that by giving all four of them some spark. Priscia Bakare‘s Hermia is preppy, determined and a heroine through and through. She’s also, deliberately, just a little annoying and self-righteous. The moment where she and Lysander, played by Matthew Tennyson roll their eyes at Helena’s approach shows us that, as well as a snapshot of the privileged life they all take for granted. That arrogance and entitlement makes them far more nuanced and interesting than usual. In fact, Tennyson’s Lysander is a gloriously snippy, slightly weak chinned pseudo hipster with Harry Potter glasses and an inability to not snark at crucial points. He, we suspect, has a YouTube channel. One filled with nothing but reaction videos.
So that’s the romantic core of the play and its way more fun than usual. However, it’s the satellite couple who really work. Kate Kennedy, best known for the under-rated Catastrophe, is excellent as Helena. There’s a hint of Miranda Hart to her comic timing but it’s coupled with a more buttoned down, almost lugubrious approach that highlights the character’s best qualities. Helena is a rolling crisis storm – Eeyore in good boots – and Kennedy works wonders with that idea. She’s a major comic talent and you get to see her flex those muscles here.
But it’s Paapa Essiedu who registers most. Demetrius has the least to do, the smallest arc but Essiedu’s presence, intelligence and long Shakespearean experience shines through. He was easily one of the best parts of the recent Shakespeare Live special, blowing multiple generations of Hamlet off the stage with his honest, open take on the Dane. He brings that same honesty to Demetrius and makes him more complex, and interesting, than he’s been before. All four of Team Young Love are good. Essiedu is extraordinary,
And then there’s Bottom and the Mechanicals. Liberally scattered with well known faces including Richard Wilson, Elaine Page and Bernard Cribbins, they’re bumbling, over enthusiastic and vastly self-involved.
Just like they’ve been since 1605.
The energy and fizz leaves the film every time they’re on screen. The language suddenly becomes painfully visible and the lightness of touch of other plots is completely absent. They work precisely once; when the excellent Fisayo Akinade gives Flute, as Thisbe, the emotional weight and natural talent that so many productions sacrifice for more cheap jokes.
And speaking of cheap jokes, here comes Bottom.
Matt Lucas is the perfect choice for Bottom, and that’s the problem. Lucas excels at massive, exuberant roles with a self-confidence so huge they have a gravitational pull. That’s exactly what Bottom is, and that’s exactly what Lucas gives us. The problem is he gives us that in every single scene. There’s no moment of clarity for Bottom, no sadness as he realizes what he was given and had taken away. He’s just an arrogant, amiable, good hearted boob who everyone loves because he’s so lovely and so committed. Almost every other character has an arc. Bottom leaves the play exactly as he comes into it and exactly as he has always been. The other two plots are full of punky swagger and subversion. Bottom and the Mechanicals are playing the same tune, in the same order, as they have for 400 years.
That being said, not all the new stuff works either. The decision to play Theseus as a dictator rather than the usual fundamentally decent monarch is an interesting one but the text never quite supports it. John Hannah does what he can but the limited screen time works against him. We’re supposed to see him as this duplicitous, political soldier who is intensely dangerous and scheming. What we get is a barely sketched in abusive relationship with Eleanor Matsuura‘s Hippolyta, who is also given very little. An early moment with her being fed lines off camera by an aide with an iPad promises a lot to this relationship but it never really delivers. They’re off stage so long that by the time they return, they only have a few lines to establish his duplicity and her inhuman nature. Like the Mechanicals’ scenes, it plays like architecture rather than character.
That cautious, conservative approach feels particularly weird when it’s folded into the entirely new and excellent ending. Theseus dies, the fairies enter Athens and wreak romantic chaos as the wedding couples dance and Theseus’s staff slowly realize that things have just got much better.
Then, Titania frees Hiippolyta from her strait jacket and it’s revealed she’s also a fairy. The pair kiss, Titania gifts Bottom with the proof of what happened to him and Oberon looks on approvingly as the party keeps going, and Puck does the world’s best ‘Drive safe, everyone! We love you, good night!’ speech.
It’s a great ending and it caps off what’s by and large a joyously untidy adaptation. Davies’ uniformly excellent casting comes into its own as we see multiple couples of multiple sexualities and numbers, all diverse and all clearly deeply in love. The offhand reveal of Hippolyta and Titania’s relationship and Oberon’s total lack of concern about it is especially successful and drives home how much he’s learned over the course of the play. It’s classic Shakespeare; everyone left alive is very happy, there are loads of weddings, here’s a song and a mild apology as we all leave the stage.
But it also has a delicious metafictional element. Puck, played with elastic flamboyance by the excellent Hiran Abeysekera delivers that final speech not just as Shakespeare but as Davies. The message is clear:
Yes, there are massive changes, yes this isn’t the production you were expecting and yes, we may have done some stuff you didn’t like.
But didn’t you have at least a little fun?
My only problem is that they didn’t go further. And, for a play that’s 411 years old, that’s a great problem to have.
Plus I REALLY want to see Hamlet done this way.
Alasdair Stuart is a freelancer writer, RPG writer and podcaster. He owns Escape Artists, who publish the short fiction podcasts Escape Pod, Pseudopod, Podcastle, Cas
A Midsummer Night’s Dream aired on BBC 1 in May.