BBC Complete Shakespeare: A Midsummer Night’s Dream

It maybe up in the air as to what play is Shakespeare’s best, but when it comes to his most universally beloved I think you’d be hard-pressed to find a more popular choice than A Midsummer Night’s Dream. What’s not to love? You’d really have to have something against fantasy or comedy to dislike it. I think its popularity stems from its seamless integration of so many disparate elements. Comedy, fantasy, magic, romance, dreams, and waking life coalesce into a perfect oneness. Of course, there’s also the metafictional level that serves as the needle and thread to sew it all together. AMND is simply a perfect play that slips in and out of its multiple facets with a brilliance that only the Bard could manage while appealing to aesthetes, intellectuals, and the everyman in nearly equal proportions.

But like so many of Shakespeare’s plays, what’s on the page can be difficult to translate to the theater or screen. AMND may be a particularly difficult case because, much like The Tempest, it’s hard to balance its comedy with its profundity, its intellectual substance with its entertainment, its visual imagery with its linguistic splendor. Yet I’ve always felt, of all Bill’s plays, it was one that was most suited to film, if only because the fantasy element would lend itself well to sumptuous visuals. But I’ve been disappointed in most versions I’ve seen, with really only the 1935 Reinhardt/Dieterle production really capturing that dreamlike, mystical tone in its images and production. But even that version wasn’t perfect as it sacrificed much of the transcendent language for that visual edge, and its cast wasn’t exactly full of the best Shakespearean actors.

If anything, this 1981 BBC production goes in the opposite direction of the Reinhardt/Dieterle version. Like most in the series, it is faithful to the text, almost to an obsessive fault. Despite its faithfulness, it’s also the shortest running BBC Shakespeare production I’ve seen yet, clocking in at a positively slim 112 minutes (compare with the 20 minute longer 1935 version). This makes for a dense and frequently rushed reading. What’s particularly hurt in the length is the pacing, which lacks the fluidity of the play itself. In this respect, the ’35 version is vastly superior as it balances its multiple storylines pristinely. Most of this rushing can be felt in the scene transitions that awkwardly jump from one to the next without any real establishment or setup. Perhaps this is less of an issue in the theaters where changes of setting necessitate a certain pause in the action.

The real strength of the BBC Shakespeares, though, has been in its casting, but even here AMND can’t help but fall behind the majority of the others. On paper and in isolation there’s nothing wrong here; Nigel Davenport is a firm, authoritative Theseus, Pippa Guard is a bit of a lackluster Hermia, though Cherith Mellor is much more spirited as Helena. Robert Lindsay is a dashing, if a bit stiff, Lysander while Nicky Henson is a suitably brutish Demetrius. The amateur players are all fine in isolation, though Brian Glover certainly lacks the personality to pull off Bottom as well as James Cagney (many who felt Cagney miscast would disagree with me). Helen Mirren is a ravishing, majestic Titania, and I would give her my nod as the best on screen, while Peter McEnroy is a strong, but too unsympathetic Oberon. Phil Daniels is a malicious Puck, lacking the more mischievous charm of the character on the page.

Where the cast really falls short is in their chemistry. This can especially be seen amongst the amateur players, but they feel as if they’re acting in different productions. About the only time they seem to gel is (thankfully) in the confused Hermia/Helena/Lysander/Demetrius quartet that has the men bewitched by Helena (because of a potion), Helena castigating them for making fun of her, and Hermia quite confused as to why Lysander is forsaking her. But even that scene reveals another major flaw with the production in its inability to capture the plays humor. The funniest lines are delivered with the utmost seriousness, and even the intentional overacting in the penultimate play-within-a-play scene lacks any personality. Perhaps it goes without saying that without the comedy, the production loses much of the play’s personality and, indeed, this does seem to be a rather dryly prosaic rendition.

The production and photography are at the other end of the spectrum, however, and this certainly stands as one of the best entries in the series. The diversity is wonderful, especially the ability to render both interiors and the exterior forests with a greater realism that doesn’t flaunt its artificiality. The lighting is much more cinematic as well, allowing director Elijah Moshinsky to contrast the flatly lit interiors with the hazy glow of the outdoor scenes. Titania’s bedroom is an especially nice example of Moshinsky using light and color to capture some of the play’s magic on a purely visual level. Sadly, though, the production and photography can’t make up for the failures in the cast, chemistry, tone, and pacing. At worst, this is simply a dull AMND, but, at worst, it’s one that lacks all of the humor and spellbinding charm of the play.

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About Jonathan Henderson
I'm a dedicated aesthete that's been fascinated with the arts since I was in my early teens. At 13 I saw my first foreign film, which ignited my passion for world cinema. I also discovered the enormous world of music out there and fell in love with everything from death metal to classical. My love for literature has especially grown in recent years, and I've taken up writing (and working really hard at) poetry. But over the past 12 years I've probably taken to film criticism more than anything, and seeing Neon Genesis Evangelion reignited my love for the arts (especially film) and took it to an even higher level. Now I write film reviews for two sites, including this one and Cinelogue. I play poker professionally, and while the world of arts and poker don't seem to converge much, I have taken the deductive and inductive logic that poker requires and attempted to apply it to all the arts as well as my criticism in an attempt to get past the jellybean syndrome ("I like blue jellybeans, you don't, and that's all we can say.").

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