I have been treating myself to such delightful diversions as I can find. Tonight I thought of the following lines from A Midsummer Night’s Dream:
Oh, when she’s angry, she is keen and shrewd!
She was a vixen when she went to school.
And though she be but little, she is fierce.
I’ve always liked that line because that is how I like to think of myself. But it isn’t true. Though I be but little, I am meek! But I thought: what a better way to assuage my anger than by watching That Bard’s most successful comedy? If you have seen it on film, it is probably the 1999 version with Kevin Kline and Michelle Pfeiffer and lots of other stars. I recall watching it, but I wasn’t that impressed. Of course, let’s face it: Shakespeare’s “most successful comedy” is a very low bar. Read, it is unbearable. Performed live it can be pretty good. And the 1999 version certainly made a film of it.
I however, was limited to the 1996 version, directed by Adrian Noble. It is the only film that he’s ever directed. He is a theater director and the film is directed very much like a play. Little consideration is given to realism. The only yielding he does to the medium is to introduce a child who is dreaming the play. When the film started, I thought, “Uh, oh!” But it really works. The play is meant to be a dream for the audience. But there is no audience, hence the boy.
There were many other aspects of the film that were play like. I loved that Noble doubled up most of the parts. Hippolyta and Titania are the same actor (Lindsay Duncan) as are Theseus and Oberon (Alex Jennings). All of the mechanicals (except for Bottom) doubt as fairies. And most pleasingly, Puck and the Master of Revels are both played by Finbar Lynch. It all gives the movie an extra dream feeling. Plus: I’ve always found A Midsummer Night’s Dream to have far too many characters.
I loved the art direction too. It is all done with extremely bright colors and sharp edges. It is, in a word, playful — like the whole production. There is no “outside” in the movie. The scenes that take place at the palace of Theseus and the first meeting of the mechanicals are the only realistic ones. I suppose some may take exception to the over-use of doors, but I liked this very much. What’s more, it helps to make the scenes between the young couples work much better than they are written.
The character of Bottom deserves special attention. He is played by Desmond Barrit, again, someone who mostly works on the stage. He sounds and acts so much like Zero Mostel it’s weird. But I don’t think he’s trying. It is just his own style of bombast. Regardless, he’s perfect for the role.
I also thought that Noble did an excellent job of weeding out a lot of the unnecessary exposition. Once Puck sets things right with the young couples, we don’t need to see it resolved. They love each other and will be allowed to married. Still, it is Shakespeare with his many failings. The film focuses with great relish on the mechanicals story line, and rightly so. The fairies are fighting over an issue so trivial that it’s downright embarrassing. And the young couples could have been plucked from any of Shakespeare’s many interchangeable comedies.
But you have to wonder about Shakespeare. The mechanicals are working men. Why does Shakespeare think they have to be such idiots? In the film, as in any decent production, they are very funny. But I can’t really get passed the fact that Shakespeare is saying, “The common man is inferior.” Never has a writer so kissed up to the power elite. And let’s not forget: that’s why he is so widely praised to this day. As the British empire grew, Shakespeare went along for the ride. He was the playwright who always told the royal powers what they wanted to hear. In fact, in many of his plays, it is only by the arrival of royalty that everything gets worked out. It can all be fun, but we must never forget that we are watching the most pernicious of propaganda.
Given all this, I think you can’t find a better version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. It is truly a fun movie.