Throughout the month of May, the BBC aired the second season of its filmed Shakespearean history play sequence The Hollow Crown. Following the surprise success of the first season, which comprised Richard II, the two parts of Henry IV, and Henry V, it's easy to understand the enthusiasm to continue the brand, but nevertheless the second season of The Hollow Crown fails to justify its own existence. Partly, this is the fault of the source material—Richard III, the play that concludes this year's trilogy, is a lot of fun, even if Benedict Cumberbatch's performance in the title role feels, even to a neophyte like myself, rather dutiful and uninteresting; but the two parts of Henry VI are a slog, enlivened mainly by Sophie Okonedo's turn as the warrior queen Margaret of Anjou. Beyond the faults that can be laid at Shakespeare's feet, however, there is the simple fact that The Hollow Crown's version of these plays repeatedly fails to find anything living and vital within them, instead falling back on brutal, gory fight scenes. This is Shakespeare recast as Game of Thrones, a ploy that is doomed to failure from the outset, since the HBO series is a lot better at being itself than the history plays are at mimicking it.
Russell T. Davies's A Midsummer Night's Dream aired a week after the conclusion of The Hollow Crown, perhaps intended as a sort of dessert course. Regardless, the result has been that Midsummer's oxygen was sucked up by the more serious-looking Crown, with its palpably high budget and ranks of well-known British thespians. And to my mind, this is unjust, because Midsummer manages, in a slight, madcap ninety minutes, what the six hours of The Hollow Crown don't even approach—to not only find a new angle on a well-known, much-quoted Shakespeare play, but to reach for a political significance that feels, in this moment, absolutely necessary.
A Midsummer Night's Dream has never been my favorite Shakespeare play. Or perhaps a better way of putting it is that it's a play that I often feel I ought to like better than I do. Parts of it are rightly iconic. Shakespeare's versions of the fairy king and queen have, like the best of his inventions, permeated our popular culture, fertilizing the imaginations of countless artists who followed him (Terry Pratchett quotes liberally from Midsummer in the Discworld novel Lords and Ladies, and Neil Gaiman imagines the play's first staging in the Sandman issue "A Midsummer Night's Dream," to name but two examples). The choice to contrast the (relatively) high humor of the fairies and squabbling lovers with the low humor of the Rude Mechanicals, though hardly unique to this play, is one that continues to reap dividends, especially given the surprising depth and humanity granted to the character of Bottom the Weaver.
But taken as a whole, there always turns out to be less to Midsummer than at first seems. The substance of it—the games the fairies play with foolish mortal hearts—always ends up being less convoluted and twisty than advertised. Perhaps for that reason, it's also less funny than you'd like it to be. And, with each production of the play, it becomes harder to ignore the fact that its premise hinges on funny rape—of both Titania and the young man Demetrius, both of whom are drugged into falling in love—and that its resolution relies on the subjugation of women: Titania, having been thoroughly sexually humiliated, submits to Oberon, returning to the bed and company she had forsworn; and Hyppolita, whose marriage to Theseus kickstarts the play's events, is being forced into that marriage after his conquest of her city. And then there is the character of Helena, so pathetically in love with Demetrius that she reveals to him the plan of her friend Hermia, whom Demetrius loves, to elope with her own love Lysander, simply in the hopes that Demetrius will look fondly on her.
Davies's Midsummer has clearly been written with an eye to these problems, and his approach to them, and to the play as a whole, is to present the story as if it were an episode of Doctor Who. This, oddly enough, turns out to be an endlessly rewarding choice. Where The Hollow Crown fruitlessly reached for realism, A Midsummer Night's Dream throws it out the window. This is already a play in which Athenian rulers, youths, and laborers behave like Elizabethans and rub shoulders with European folklore, so why not forget realism completely, and set the story in one of Who's alternate universes or alien planets? It is, after all, very easy to imagine the Doctor—or at least a less moral version of him—involving himself in the lives of mortals in just the sort of reckless, ultimately disastrous way that Oberon and Puck do in the play. And so director David Kerr effortlessly zips from the grand, retro-futuristic castle of Hyppolita, to an almost quintessentially English pub straight out of the 50s (perhaps out of the second season Who episode "The Idiot's Lantern," set around the time of Elizabeth II's coronation, which these scenes deliberately recall), to the same forest used by multiple Who stories, all interspersed with 21st century-style news reports. Even the unfortunately bombastic Murray Gold score, though it quickly outstays its welcome, is useful in establishing Davies's approach to his material.
Theseus (John Hannah) is here treated more like a conqueror than a lover. One might call him a thinly-veiled Nazi, but the veil is really more micron-thick. The bright red banners emblazoned with the black-and-white emblem with which he's decked Hyppolita's castle as a sign of his conquest, the shiny black uniforms in which his goose-stepping soldiers are clad, all these are so familiar from a million Who episodes that it's hard to even get worked up at yet another cartoon-ization of the Nazi aesthetic. More importantly, it's a device that suddenly makes the play's framing story relevant and interesting in itself. This is no longer a wedding celebration; it's a tale of resistance. When Hyppolita (Eleanor Matsuura) is wheeled into Theseus's presence, trussed up like Hannibal Lecter, and made to read her words of love off a teleprompter, it's easy to roll your eyes. But Hannah commits so fully to Theseus's mustache-twirling villainy that one can't help getting caught up in the suddenly pressing question of how he's to be defeated—perhaps more pertinently, how the play can be twisted into a story in which Theseus and Hyppolita's marriage is scotched, rather than celebrated.
Other adaptation choices are also clearly aimed at disarming the play's poisonous gender politics. There's not much that can be done about Helena's ridiculous decision to betray Hermia, but the choice to cast the statuesque Kate Kennedy in the role adds another, poignant note to her desperation for affection. Towering over the other actors playing the young lovers, it's easy to imagine a Helena who has had it drummed into her that her physical appearance makes her unfeminine and thus unlovable, so that when, later in the play, the bewitched Lysander and Demetrius both begin to rhapsodize about her beauty, Helena's unshakable belief that they are mocking her feels painfully believable. Meanwhile, the fact that Lysander (Matthew Tennyson), the man who won Hermia's (Prisca Bakare) heart over the handsome, manly Demetrius (Paapa Essiedu), is a floppy-haired, high-voiced nerd, or that Titania (Maxine Peake) is depicted as a warrior queen, are not new or very bold choices by any means (and the raggedy, Mad-Max-by-way-of-The-Hunger-Games-Capitol costuming of Titania and her fairies already feels like a cliché), but taken together they do a lot to counteract the misogynistic, patriarchal assumptions of the original text. At its best, Midsummer is a play about how unpredictable and irrational human love and attraction are, and acknowledging this often begins by acknowledging—as the casting and costuming of this adaptation does—that there is no right or wrong way to embody your gender.
In fact, much of the attention—not all of it positive—paid to Davies's Midsummer by the UK press has focused on his decision to "gay up" the play. I'm a rather infrequent theater-goer, but even I know that treating this as something unusual is, well, only slightly less ridiculous than the outrage that greeted The Hollow Crown's decision to cast Okonedo, a black woman, as Margaret. Which is to say, these are both things that theatrical Shakespeare productions have been doing for decades—honestly, if you're putting on a production of A Midsummer Night's Dream in two thousand and fucking sixteen and you haven't made it even a little bit gay, you've done something seriously wrong. But Davies makes several witty choices in his efforts to twist the original text to his purposes, which are worth noting. For one thing, there is the reaction of Flute (Fisayo Akinade), one of the Rude Mechanicals, when he discovers that he is to play the role of Thisbe, a woman and an object of affection, in the play the company plans to present to Theseus and Hyppolita. In the original text, Flute protests the indignity of playing a woman's part. In Davies's version, Akinade, who plays Flute as sweetly fey, happily accepts the role, and quips "to thine own self be true!"
In another scene, Puck (Hiran Abeysekera), in one of his attempts to correct the mess he's made by giving the McGuffin love potion to the wrong person, doses Demetrius. But when Demetrius opens his eyes, the first person he sees is Lysander, whom he immediately begins to woo, using the same language with which, in the play, he courts Helena. When Puck corrects his mistake, Demetrius merely blinks, and starts giving the same speech to Helena, rejoining the text of the play. It's a clever way of playing with the text, but more importantly, it's a reminder that love doesn't change according to the gender of the beloved. Demetrius woos the way he woos, and whether the object of his (drug-induced) affection is a man or a woman, his love is the same.
All of these devices do a great deal to make the body of the play—the squabbles between Titania and Oberon, and the young lovers' misadventures—feel important and fresh. Not quite enough, though. One can understand why Davies chose to elide the actual reason for Oberon and Titania's fight—a young pageboy whom they both want in their courts, which makes them seem capricious, and perhaps even predatory—in a version of the story in which they need to be the heroes. But it takes all of Nonso Anozie's not-insignificant gravitas to make Oberon look like something more than a tyrant and an abuser when he manipulates his wife for no real reason. And even in a shortened version of the play, the young lovers quickly outstay their welcome. These mortals may be fools, as Puck observes, but after the third or fourth time in which they accuse one another of stealing their lover's affection, what they mainly are is annoying.
What this means is that, as in so many other versions of it, Davies's A Midsummer Night's Dream ends up hinging on its Rude Mechanicals, and chiefly on Bottom the Weaver, the most human and rounded of the play's characters. Matt Lucas hews close to his familiar schtick with his version of Bottom, playing him as an exaggerated, blaring lower-middle-class stereotype: good-natured, dim, but also full of an exaggerated sense of his own importance. Like a lot about Davies's version of the play—like a lot of his writing in general—this is the sort of over-the-top mugging that you have to accept as the price of admission (think Catherine Tate's early versions of Donna Noble on Doctor Who), but which, if you let it in, ends up revealing a touching, vulnerable humanity. Bottom's interactions with Titania remain some of the play's best jokes (when she tells him she loves him, he freely admits that there's no reason for it, but then philosophically adds that "reason and love keep little company together now-a-days"). The scene in which he awakes on a cold hillside, half-wondering and half-heartbroken, the enchantment that turned him into an ass and made him the beloved of the fairy queen lifted, is one of the film's most affecting moments.
It is, in fact, always a bit of a surprise to remember that there's still another act to go after this moment, the presentation of the Rude Mechanicals' play to Theseus and Hyppolita. In other productions I've seen, these scenes have tended to feel like padding. Davies's framing story makes them essential, but more importantly, he uses them to drive home Theseus's villainy in a way that justifies the film's too-easy use of Nazi signifiers. In the play, Theseus's mocking asides about the Mechanicals' thespian abilities and too-literal production are meant to be jokes shared with the audience. In the film, they're nasty, rude comments that only go un-shushed because he has the power to have everyone in the room executed. Thus, in a single scene, Davies brings home Theseus's true evil, and the reason why the allure of fascism always turns out to be hollow and rotten. Theseus is evil because he is joyless. Because he can't buy into the silliness and good intentions of the Mechanicals' production and appreciate it for what it is; because he doesn't understand the kindness that would lead Hyppolita and the young lovers to indulge their incompetent performance; and because he constantly needs to prove to everyone that he is the strongest, toughest, smartest guy in the room, even as he demonstrates that he possesses none of these qualities.
In its final minutes, A Midsummer Night's Dream breaks completely with its source material, as the reunited Oberon and Titania storm the castle and free Hyppolita. Their promise that "Now, until the break of day/Through this house each fairy stray" is transformed from an affirmation of an existing peace into a battle cry—a reminder that sometimes, in order to assure the safety and happiness of good people, it's necessary to disturb the peace. With Theseus shuffled off, the fairies tear up his banners into streamers and begin an impromptu gay pride parade, their magic persuading even Theseus's soldiers to throw off their uniforms and start dancing (one of them takes up with Flute the actor). It's a quintessentially Doctor Who-ish ending—as the saying goes, the forces of intellect and romance triumphing over brute force and cynicism.
I watched A Midsummer Night's Dream on a weekend in which the voices of mindless militarism coming out of the American presidential election seemed to grow to an overpowering din, and which ended with a horrifying attack on a gay nightclub in Orlando. On that day in particular, a story in which the forces of joyless, power-hungry fascism are defeated by love—especially gay love, and especially with so many people of color on screen—felt like exactly what was needed. Days later, it still feels just as necessary and important, so much more so than the seriousness and realism of something like The Hollow Crown. Like the best artists, Davies has powered through cliché and silliness and found a vital, essential truth, one that we need now more than ever.
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