58. Julie Taymor’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream (2014)
I have reached the point where my experience as a reviewer is becoming a liability. It is the responsibility of every production of Shakespeare’s work to both make it new while simultaneously tapping into the essence of what makes Shakespearean drama work. The more films and plays I have seen, the more difficult I am to impress. How do you make it new, yet old, after people have been making it new for so long?
Not long ago, I review Julie Tamor’s Tempest, which was mostly lackluster if compared with Prospero’s Books or especially if compared with Taymor’s own Titus. Nonetheless, I have looked forward to seeing the film of Taymor’s stage adaptation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, since the preview for it seemed darker and stranger than her Tempest despite the generally lighter source material. I longed to know if Taymor’s tepid Tempest was anomalous. Could she make Dream both new and old?
Yes, she could. Her Midsummer Night’s Dream is too delightful.
The constraint of the stage seemed to help immensely. How does one convey the sense of metaphysical wonder of fairies in three-dimensional space? Taymor’s solution was to work vertically to convey the sense of worlds passing through worlds.
A clownish-looking fellow who will turn out to be our Puck goes to bed in the middle of the stage. Branches lift that bed high above the stage, and construction workers, our rude mechanicals, attach ropes and chains to the corners of the bed, and chainsaw the bed from its rustic frame. The sheet is yanked diaphanously across the entire stage, making Puck disappear before the arrival of the Duke and the nattering of our love triangle.
While there are natural and pagan elements in this Dream, Taymor uses the fun of a stage production to avoid (mostly) the predictable color green. Es Devlin’s stage design and Constance Hoffman’s costume design is mostly a gothic palette emphasizing black, white, and gray that seems to make all of the aerial work seem all the more ethereal. The grass-covered barcalounger is a nice touch. Even Titania’s fairy attendants are dressed like ghostly Victorian orphans.
There are no movie stars in this production, just actors doing mostly perfect work.
Max Casella gives let’s an old-fashioned New York Italian accent do most of his work as Bottom before his transformation. He doesn’t overdo Bottom’s overacting, which is a relief.
One of the great scenes we expect is of course Bottom as an ass, and in this case, leaning on Taymor’s earlier theatrical instincts to involve puppetry, Bottom’s jackass puss is rendered through a prosthetic head that tapers to an alarmingly human mouth.
Tina Benko as Titiana and David Harewood as Oberon prove quite regal and compelling.
There is the usual inter-gender wrestling performed charmingly.
Jake Horowitz was underwhelming as Lysander, but that is a minor part, and since he kind of looks like Russell Brand but isn’t Russell Brand, we must count ourselves lucky.
Puck, who isn’t a minor part, is daringly performed by Kathryn Hunter, who makes it look easy.
Taymor’s minimalism and eclectic style work wonders on this film of her stage version. The cinematography somehow managed to convey a cinematic sense without getting in the way of the performance. This is a superior Dream!
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.