Rogues Guide to Shakes on Film

32. David Kerr’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream (2016)

As I’ve often said, comedy and tragedy are not that far apart in Shakespearean drama. Comedies end with weddings, and tragedies … a pile of corpses. The tension between these two extreme outcomes is such an important part of Shakespeare’s appeal: Hamlet is really fucking funny, and Much Ado About Nothing has a serious share of mourning and sorrow.

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David Kerr’s new version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream reminds us of these tensions by leaning into comedy’s tragic potential even more than the bard originally did. More often than not, AMND is treated like a fantastical farce in which faeries and humans alike are both made helpless and ridiculous by their desires, but will ultimately be comforted by romantic love. In Kerr’s version, the context is a bit darker, and the outcome is less certain.

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Duke Theseus of Athens is a fascist tyrant in a retro-futuristic contemporary setting. Many productions show the impending nuptials between Theseus and Hippolyta as a tense union, but this version (adapted by Russel T. Davies) shows Theseus as outright domineering, Hippolyta being a prisoner in a straight-jacket.

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The mood is darker still when Egeus petitions Theseus to intercede in a quarrel with his daughter in regard to her suitors. Egeus wishes her to marry Demetrius, in this case a loyal soldier of Theseus’s, instead of her favored suitor, Lysander. Shakespeare has Theseus tell Hermia that she must abide her father’s wishes, or else face execution, or else (and here Shakespeare diminishes the stakes) become a nun. The Theseus of this MSND does not offer Hermia the third option.

The aggressive conflicts in the human world are nearly as brutal in the faery world. Maxine Peake is the most impressive Titania I’ve ever seen, determined not just in grace, but in physicality, not to submit to her Oberon.

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And Nonso Anomie’s Oberon is equal to the menace and seriousness of conflict this version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream is pursuing.

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The make up and special effects of this film work intuitively, persuasively, so that the faery element joins the drama rather than being an awkward lark imposed upon the audience. The passions and cruelties of this play have never felt so intense in the watching.

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Murray Gold’s music is remarkable for its accents that keep such bold moves from being sloppy camp. For avoiding the Mendelssohn and other overfamiliar music, Gold offers a lot of dramatic oomph without being absurd.

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The acting is stellar, down to every last actor, and the rude mechanicals, including the misadventures of Bottom, come off as surprisingly new despite this being Shakespeare’s most often performed comedy.

I am rushing a bit through this review, dear readers, but then again this film comes in under 90 minutes, and keeps up a nearly manic pace.

Russel T. Davies has taken quite a few liberties with the text, including giving lines to different characters than Shakespeare did, but the result is one of the best films of Shakespeare that has ever been made.

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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.

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