33. Dominic Dromgoole and Robin Lough’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream (2014)
Plenty of film adaptations of Shakespeare actually happen to be adaptations of stage versions of Shakespeare’s plays, since the vision of theatrical directors and the experience of the actors can make an expedient transition to a two dimensional plane.
Of course, the temptation and haste of many of those films means that a breathtaking stage production becomes either merely adequate, or even a disappointing film.
A great stage version is greater than a great film of Shakespeare, dear readers. If you have good theater near you, do go. Don’t just sit at home watching Shakespeare alone in the dark if good actors are doing good work in your vicinity. There is something special about the uniqueness of every single performance, of sharing the same air as the actors, of being neurologically a part of the same experience the actors are creating with you.
One inevitable solution to this potential source of regret of missing out on theatrical experience is to film, directly, a stage production itself. This can be a wonderfully satisfying experience, as is the case in Shakespeare’s Globe film of its stage show of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
The Globe seen in this film is a recreation of the original O-shaped theater that Shakespeare was a co-owner of in his time, and the new one is located not far from where the original once squatted. I don’t know as much about this establishment as I could, but there seems to be a commitment to maintaining a reasonable fidelity to period. The architecture, costumes, props, effects, and music seem apropos for the Renaissance without being fusty. Yet there are modern touches, such as electricity, women playing women roles, presumably civilized toilets, and very good lighting. And the audience has not been asked to wear seventeenth century duds or practice hygiene from four centuries ago.
There is something in the world of Shakespearean performance today called period practice that tries to pretend that the performance is actually happening in the Renaissance itself. The Globe appears to be sort of working in that tradition, but less priggishly so.
This film is charming in the way its camera cuts simulate the dynamic experience of being at the theater, and some of the conceptual ways that the drama is enacted, so simply, let us get into the story more quickly and deeply than a million dollars’ worth of CGI effects would have.
One odd peculiarity of seeing a film of a stage play performance of a comedy is that you can hear the audience laughing, like a laugh track on a sit com, and I can almost hear someone saying, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream was filmed before a live studio audience.” The effect of this laughter isn’t creepy though (unlike sit coms) because you can actually see the audience.
Obviously, though, while these elements can add charm to the film, the director and actors have to surprise us with the interpretation of the play, in this case, a play that is performed and over-performed, and over-over-performed, like a bar musician playing his cover of “Stairway to Heaven.”
So Dominic Dromgoole, the stage director, chose to emphasize the carnality of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and the interrelationship of the faeries and the human realm, this sort of subconscious current of desire.
Sarah MacRae plays Helena, whose love for the young noble Demetrius (Joshua Silver) is painfully unrequited. Deep in the Athenian woods with him, she temps him with her sensuality when he earnestly praised the worthiness of her virginity, and Demitrius is momentarily swayed. During this interlude, the Faerie King, Oberon (Chuck Light), is invisibly learning from a tree and touching her hair, a pervy crossing of a boundary, but done so gently and sensitively that we understand why he is moved to help her win her man.
Traditionally, Helena comes off as a mewling sad sack, so this portrayal is a nice touch.
When Oberon learns of how effective his sexual prank of Titiana has turned out, he celebrates rather exuberantly with his clownish assistant, Puck (Matthew Tennyson).
This uncontainable lust continues to expand when Lysander and Demetrius, now both magically enamored of Helena, attempt to fight one another with Helena between them, although this wrestling looks like nothing so much as dry-humping, with Oberon humping the phallic tree he is holding onto. Is he responding to their behavior, or causing it?
What makes the scene poignant is that Hermia (Olivia Ross) is looking on at this maddening scene.
Another fine touch is that as the play progresses, and Hermia, Helena, Demetrius, and Lysander wander further into the wood of the unconscious, they get physically dirtier and more unkempt.
Have I mentioned that this film is wonderfully funny?
I don’t want to give too much more away, but the rude mechanicals can easily make or break any A Midsummer Night’s Dream. As James Cagney proved, a bad Bottom, the excitable, egotistical amateur actor, punishes an audience. One can’t go the full bad Bottom. One must act the idea of the bad Bottom.
Pearce Quigley’s Bottom is understated in his idea of bad acting, finding most of the humor in his fun timing, which allows the other rude mechanicals to be a greater part of the show, and not just props for a narcissist.
Robin Lough’s film of Dominic Dromgoole’s stage show sets an impressively high bar for filmed stage shows. Shakespeare, and the theatrical experience, is very much alive in it.
John King (Episode, well, all of them) holds a PhD in English from Purdue University, and an MFA from New York University. He has reviewed performances for Shakespeare Bulletin.