On adaptation and versions of Shakespeare and particularly Russell T Davies Adaptation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream on BBC4. This I discover was actually made in 2016.
There are lots of reasons to edit and transpose in Shakespeare. I am certainly not averse to it and have a whole chapter on the subject in ‘What Country Friends Is This?’ my new book to be published by NHB later in the year. Michael Chekhov wrote, way back in the middle of the 20th century, that Shakespeare often needed editing and shaping for a modern audience. But as Peter Brook warned in Evoking (and Forgetting!) Shakespeare, to modernise, cut or transpose meant that you had to be fully aware of the consequences.
There are lots of things we might challenge in the Dream; the over-arching idea that heterosexual love and marriage was the natural and only way out of conflict; that it is ok for the ruler Theseus to conquer the Amazons and then to marry their queen whilst the blood is still soaking into the battlefield; that it is ok to have the king of the Fairies to destroy the environment and fight with his queen over possession of a changeling boy and then to get his revenge by bewitching her into having sex with (essentially) an animal.
All of these problems were faced head-on in a feast of pyrotechnical skill and pace with clever editing and truncating of plot, and some very nice use of language (though of course the edits were enormous). It opened us to different sorts of love, which was great. But for me it did not fully work in a very fundamental way. I want to look at just a couple of things.
At the centre of this problem are the roles of Theseus and Hippolyta, to my mind two of the most underwritten parts in Shakespeare. Unless they are played by the same actors playing Titania and Oberon who play out the warring conflict of Theseus and Hippolyta in a poetic way, then they are nearly always unsatisfactory. Davies’ solution to this was a bold one. He made the kingdom of Athens a totalitarian state, Theseus a fascist madman and Hipployta a kind of fairy creature (I won’t elaborate in case you haven’t seen it) . I remember when I worked on this play in ’08 I toyed with something similar but felt that unless I changed the play completely, it simply would not carry through. In the TV adaptation it meant (and this is not a bad idea) what happens in the forest somehow liberates and frees everyone in Athens itself. That is intrinsic to the play but somehow does not always happen in production.
The speech of Theseus in Act V “I never may believe these antique fables” where he decries and rubbishes the lovers’ story of the forest and love and imagination in total is the complete opposite of what the play is telling us. Shakespeare had great faith in romantic love, even though everyone does not end up a winner (look at Twelfth Night). So, if we are looking for a polarity, this cynical, superior, materialistic speech is a dynamic to explore and set against the thrust of the play. When I did a production of this play in 08 I gave that speech to Egeus, who is the one person in the original who is not happy about the young lovers’ decision. He was mobbed and pursued by the fairies and chased from the stage. To keep the speech with Theseus makes it completely unbelievable that he would pardon the lovers for the transgression and have them marry with him. In answer to this criticism you might say to me, “this is a fantasy”. Yes it is a fantasy but one that needs an emotional logic for the actors to play. For John Hannah I really felt for a moment his characterisation was squeezed by the demands of the adaptation. Had he somehow made it look that his decision to pardon them was in order to make his own marriage look acceptable, I feel this would have gone with the concept. In other words, that he needed those young lovers to legitimise his own marriage.
A similar problem occurred with Titania and Oberon. By cutting the changeling child and making the argument between Titania and Oberon about Titania’s love for Hippolyta (a neat idea considering how badly Theseus treats her), that idea needed to be followed through in Oberon’s character trajectory. Despite some beautiful moments, the character of Oberon who should go on this big journey in the adaptation was lost. A key moment was a line change in Act 4 Sc3 “Oh how mine eyes do loathe his visage now” which Titania says when she awakes from the enchantment when she sees her ass-headed lover, but it was changed to “Oh how mine eyes do loathe thy visage now” as a jibe to Oberon but said as a joke…. So hey presto, he puts her under a spell to humiliate herself and she says, ‘ha, fair cop,love!” It was another moment where a decision made in the adaptation did not for me sit well with the actors.
Like many adaptations, I felt somehow that in some of these crucial journies and atmospheres director, writer and actors were not quite on the same page. So despite some great energy, for me this made it rather superficial. Why, for instance were the mechanicals not terrified at the Duke’s Palace when they did the play? An atmosphere was explored here later in the scene but they should have come in with this expectation that, though this was an honour, it was dangerous. Having said this, the adaptation and the acting hit some really good notes, not least Flute’s final speech as Thisbe (Which, by the way, we would have been much better to stay with rather than constantly cutting back to the demise of Theseus – you need to see it).
Though I liked Maxine Peake (Titania) and Nonso Anozie (Oberon) for me the acting that sat best with the adaptation was Puck (Hiran Abeysekera) , Lysander (Matthew Tennyson), Hermia.(Priska Bakare) and finally Flute(Fisayo Akinade).
The one thing that really annoyed me though was the continual music track. For me the words are music enough, at least for some of the time.