Despite the numerous complaints about a major character dying, lines being cut and a lesbian kiss, Russell T Davies‘ TV reimagining of A Midsummer Night’s Dream succeeded in bringing one of the best known Shakespearean comedies to life for a modern 2016 audience. From the onset, Davies presents a world infused with what Tim Dowling calls “Doctor Who-ish overtones”; the classical setting of ancient Athens is set against the tyrannical Hitler-esque Theseus (John Hannah) and his Stormtropper guards, complete with a 1984-like court covered in tablets and watchful cameras.
From a tyrannical Hitler figure to Red Riding Hood, from Stormtroopers to lesbian romances, Davies interweaves Shakespearean comedy with the world of 2016. Despite Gerard O’Donovan rather harshly describing them as “gimmickry”, these additions strongly ground the production into the world of today, and in doing so enlivens this frequently reworked text into something for the modern family.
However, the strength of Davies’ adaptation does not simply lie in the interjection of modern culture. Music is used to great effect and adds to a lightness to the production even in its most serious moments. Computer graphics brings the fantastical elements to life with the ranging storm and fairies flying about as gleaming sparks. The computerised images do at points detract from the magic generated from the acting itself, especially with the over-computerised Athens, destroying the illusion a little. But this does not draw significantly from the magic overall.
The fairies are given a refreshing look that is more insect and war-like instead of evoking something more pantomime or traditionally ethereal. However, the fairies’ hissing seemed a little unneeded and disjointed with the elegant words delivered beautifully by Nonso Anozie as Oberon and Maxine Peake as Titania . Their aggressive stand-off in the first part of the production was only let down by the Harry Potter-esque power battle with wrestling magic beams which seemed a little too much.
Peake plays a seductive yet martial Titania, while Anozie gives Oberon a new look, turning the Oberon as a highly-sexualised Grecian hero seen in the 2013 production at Shakespeare’s Globe played by John Light, into a figure that is more commanding, more mighty, but also less sexualised and more likeable in his apparent affection for his Queen and shared playful humour with Puck.
The star-crossed lovers shine brightly in their brilliant performances, especially the young but highly talented Prisca Bakare as a bold, fierce but short-tempered Hermia and Kate Kennedy as a bitter, love-sick Helena who is yet loveable and pitiful. Davies makes playful use of Bakare and Kennedy’s heights, playing upon the famous characterisation of Hermia as a midget. Demetrius’ (Paapa Essiedu) brief infatuation with Lysander (Matthew Tennyson) also adds new comedy to the events in the forest in mixing up the lovers even more, with Essiedu playing a very funny, infatuated Demetrius.
Despite O’Donovan and others expecting something more dramatic from the renowned revitaliser of Doctor Who, Davies was able to work his magic over A Midsummer Night’s Dream. He not only brings this 400 year old play into a modern light, but demonstrates its continued ability to tug on our heart strings. The sense of harmony and restored order traditionally implied through in the conclusive dance at the end of the play is reworked by Davies to give us something that seems more freeing than re-assertive. Theseus is not “pointlessly killed off” as O’Donovan suggests, as his death liberates Hippolyta from his grip and allows perhaps the most liberating moment of all, the rather sweet kiss between her and Titania. Their kiss, and the freeing of Hippolyta from Theseus’ very real physical restrictions upon her body, greatly adds to the conclusive sense of real joy and liberation. Overall, it is a delightful and innovative adaptation suited for the families of 2016, which leaves us with a tear of joy and a sense of liberation.