I have to admit I started viewing the BBC’s new production of A Midsummer Nights Dream with some misgivings. I can be a purist sometimes over Shakespeare plays and find myself a bit put out to see actors in modern dress settling their differences with swords. But this is a new take on an old classic which had me hooked from the opening sequence. For here is Theseus striding towards us with armed guards in formidable hooded helmets behind him and fascist flags all around him emblazoned as an implacable, fascist dictator. There is no doubt that this man could tell Hermia that her father should be as a God to her, she is either to obey him or be put to death and who at the opening of the play admits to Hippolyta that he wooed her with his sword and won her love by doing her injuries, but is going to give her a wonderful wedding to make up for it. Umm!
The first shock of this new production is when Hippolyta is wheeled on a trolley into Theseus’ public presence bound with terrible, leather thongs and with her mouth covered with a leather gag, which is removed so that she can speak “public” lines from a cue card. It gives a new and terrible interpretation to the flowery words she is being required to say. And then the moon, like to a silver bow, New bent in heaven, shall behold the night, Of our solemnities. Especially when she has a terrible, shuddering fit afterwards. Now that is something new.
From then on this version of the story uses every modern device to point up the tale. The wood is not the pretty, pretty place we so often see on stage thanks to Mendelssohn, but a wild wood full of frightening creatures and in the throes of a fearful storm in which an oak is struck by lightening and split in two. It might be midsummer but the seasons are changed and unpredictable, as Titania tells Oberon in their first heated quarrel, which has been changed by Russell T Davies, from a rather petty spat about who should own a little changeling boy to full-on sexual jealously, which makes better sense. Oberon is a formidable, horned figure, Titania beautiful but outlandish and both of them can appear and disappear in a flash of trailing light which is splendidly dramatic in such a dark place. You really do feel that Puck could put a girdle round the Earth in 40 minutes. Anything is possible with these fairies and you know it will be spiteful and possibly cruel. How’s that for tension? I loved it.
The rude mechanicals meet in a pub of that name. Bottom is splendidly played by Matt Lucas, as a man plainly held in some affection by the locals who enjoy his buffoonery. The casting here is masterly and uses actors of every colour. Hurray, hurray! and about time too. And the interplay between the characters which we see with nods and winks and baffled expressions in close up, makes something a great deal more subtle than we usually get from a gang of clumsy amateurs. Bottom translated is funny throughout his entire scene with Titania and here too is a wonderful mix of colour for the fairies are in every shade you could imagine. And what an inspiration it was to decide to cast the quartet of lovers with a black, earnest Demetrius and a black, frightened Hermia, with the wonderfully lanky Helena and the bespectacled but affectionate nerd, Lysander as white. Love it. And how about newcomer Hiran Abeysekera as Puck who calls himself that merry wanderer of the night and is a joy to the eye.
But it’s the conclusion of the play that has caused the most feathers to fly. After a wonderfully hilarious version of the lamentable tragedy of Pyramus and Thisbe, Theseus leaves the revellers and staggers off into the labyrinth of corridors to endure a heart-attack which kills him. Given what a ugly character he has become in this version, I have to say, I was cheering. Isn’t that exactly what we want to happen to all fascist dictators? And don’t people dance when it does? Just as they are dancing at the end of this play, when the rigid rules of a dictatorship are removed before our eyes, helmets and guns are thrown away, a gay couple embrace and dance off together and our poor, trembling Hippolyta is at last released from her bonds and rises happily into the air with Titania as they kiss one another happily and grow magical and beautiful wings.
Congratulations Russell T Davies, take no notice of all those ruffled feathers. You’ve created a tale for our time.