Review: A Midsummer Night’s Dream (BBC, 2016)

A Midsummer Night's Dream

I confess: I am not the biggest Shakespeare fan out there. By that, I don’t mean that I don’t like his work, I’ve just never properly gotten into it in the same way that hundreds upon thousands of other people have done. Like most British children, I studied Romeo & Juliet and Macbeth at school, and I certainly appreciate the impact his writing has left on history – which is why, 400 years since the great bard’s death, I was curious to see how the BBC’s latest adaptation of one of his most famous plays, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, would fare in the 21st Century. With a slew of big name stars making up its cast and the incredible Russell T Davies tasked with adapting the script, is this 2016 rendition full of fantastical flourish or does it flounder like a fallen fairy?

Let’s put it this way: A Midsummer Night’s Dream is very Doctor Who. In fact it’s very, very Doctor Who. Right from the first scene, this feels like it’s ripped straight out of the 2005-2010 era of the sci-fi series – squint hard enough at the set and it’s essentially the Naismith Mansion from The End of Time, complete with someone being wheeled in on a trolley strapped into a straight jacket and wearing a Hannibal Lecter mask. It’s almost as if Russell T Davies has picked up his BBC writing pen exactly where he left it 6 years ago, and the references don’t stop there, predominantly because the crew is largely the same that works on Doctor Who, right down to the special effects team and Murray Gold’s musical score. It’s familiar territory, and works just as well here as it ever did for the Time Lord’s adventures.

Speaking of that opening scene, it depicts one of the story’s first major tweaks – this, after all, is an adaptation, not a straight retelling of Shakespeare’s play. The king of Athens, Theseus, is set to marry his queen, Hippolyta, but what you might expect to be pre-marital bliss is quite the opposite. Theseus is portrayed here as a tyrannical dictator, with Nazi overtones in abundance from the swastika-esque banners to the endless broadcasts of his speeches. Oh, and Hippolyta? Yeah, she’s the one he’s got all strapped up and muzzled – and she doesn’t look happy about it one bit. Well, the course of true love never did run smooth…

A Midsummer Night's Dream

There’s something not quite right about Hippolyta though – in her anger, she glows with a strange, unknowable power – which suggests there’s more going on here than meets the eye, and certainly something extra to what Shakespeare ever wrote into his play. Cue the rest of the story, and the fanciful side of things take flight, as the narrative essentially breaks up into three strands that all converge inside the forest. Firstly, there’s the tale of Hermia, who runs away with her love Lysander but is destined to be engaged to Demetrius, who in turn gives chase having been tipped off by Helena, who yearns to win his heart… it’s basically a bit of a tangled-up love triangle (or square?) if you want to sum it up in a few words. Elsewhere, there’s a play within a play – or rather, a troupe of actors planning to put on a play for Theseus’ wedding, who conveniently all live on the set of Trap Street from Doctor Who’s Face The Raven. This is where most of the famous faces come in: Matt Lucas, Bernard Cribbins, and Richard Wilson are among the aspiring actors, with Matt Lucas’ Bottom (ahem) being one of the highlights throughout the piece. Finally, there’s the fairies, led by Oberon and Titania, who are locked in a battle of playing tricks on each other, mainly involving a love potion that makes you madly enamoured with the very next person you see. Eventually, the characters all find themselves interacting in one form or another, leading to much mischief and mayhem along the way.

I won’t go through the entire story because you can always read Shakespeare’s original for that – instead, let’s focus on what makes this adaptation so special. As already suggested, the presentation is sublime – the music, the visuals, the costuming… it’s all very atmospheric and fitting. The only thing that looks slightly out of place is Bottom’s inevitable transformation into an ass, but even that has a weird prosthetic charm not dissimilar to many of the monsters on Doctor Who (again, same people, same departments…). While there have been some liberties taken with the script (more on that in a minute), the 90 minute spectacle is largely faithful to Shakespeare’s text, with his Middle English verse intact. There’s a few instances of more contemporary speech scattered throughout (and I swear Matt Lucas gets a cheeky “I’m a laaaady!” in at one point) but for the most part this is wholesale Shakespeare, which may take some adjusting to at first but is more than in keeping with the mystical, mythical world being built on screen, even if it is a clearly more up to date one with futuristic Nazis walking around wielding guns and iPads.

A Midsummer Night's Dream

The aforementioned changes to the plot, then, essentially all come towards the end of the run time, in the climactic scene no less. As Bottom and co. are delivering their play to Theseus – laughably bad performances very much in tow (Bernard Cribbins pretending to be a wall is particularly hoot-worthy) – the presence of good and evil is cranked up to maximum, with Theseus quietly blacklisting (or rather, sentencing to death) many of the actors, before succumbing to the same fate as the fictional protagonist. The fairies enter the mansion at this point, overseeing Theseus’ demise and helping to free Hippolyta, who (spoilers) turns out to be a fairy as well, captured and forced into marriage by the late dictator. Purists may scoff at the changes – and certain viewers definitely won’t be able to keep quiet about the kiss between Hippolyta and Titania – but it works, and adds another level of magic and mystery to proceedings to helps liven up what is otherwise a rather plodding final act.

In the end, everyone lives happily ever after, and fairy servant Puck addresses the audience to apologise for any offences made (it’s as if the BBC knew they’d have some controversy on their hands!) – but don’t worry if you didn’t like it, because for all you need know or care, everything you’ve watched has just been a dream. That’s a beautiful message, and almost justifies this adaptation in itself – not everyone will agree with the updates and the alterations, but you’re not being forced to accept this as a definitive version or a faithful retelling. It’s just one rendition, the perspective from one person’s imagination filtered onto a beloved and timeless classic. And as far as adaptations go, they don’t come much better than this.

Whimsical, wondrous, and whopping good fun, Russell T Davies’ A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a must-see for any Shakespeare enthusiast, whatever your ultimate verdict turns out to be. And who knows? Maybe it’ll help a whole new generation to appreciate England’s most famous playwright, and inspire a tidal wave of talent in its wake. By all means, if this is anything to go by, then the arts have never been in more capable hands.

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