‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ review: Russell T Davies’ adaptation is life-affirming

Well, that was gloriously life-affirming, wasn’t it?

Maybe it’s the fact that Shakespeare’s comedies, when done well, lead to a freeing of the human spirit.  (When done badly, they’re excruciating.)  Maybe it’s because there is little more delightful on television than hearing Bernard Cribbins sing.  Whatever, that was a more than convivial way of spending a Bank Holiday evening.

Contrary to what you may have read in the printed press, there’s little here that’s truly radical.  Having Demetrius briefly fall in love with Lysander is entirely of a piece with a play that is about sexual confusion, and gives us the splendid sight of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s current Hamlet, Paapa Essiedu, crushing out on the seeming love child of James Spader and Harry Potter.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream Matt Lucas

As with that Trap Street set from Doctor Who, what’s noticeable here is not what’s new but what’s recycled – and how well that recycling’s done.

There’s a brief moment of jarring when one realises that the Hannibal Lecter trolley on which Hippolyta gets wheeled is the same one from David Tennant’s Doctor Who swan song, but then, such is the pace of this thing, we’re on to iPads, flunkies, and, specifically, totalitarian abuse seen as a metaphor for sexual repression.

In the gaiety, in both senses, that gets released in the final song and dance number, Cucumber star Fisayo Akinade (Flute) gets his guard and there’s another kiss, between Hippolyta and Titania, which early previewers would have you believe is controversial.  It isn’t.

It’s an expression of the personal and sexual liberation characters are supposed to embrace in a Shakespearean comedy.  Little wonder, then, that Russell T Davies was drawn to this material.  In this faerie world, you can literally get your wings.

A Midsummer Night's Dream

In this version of Athens, and the wood outside, love crosses social and ethnic boundaries.  Patriarchs desire the status quo, or marriage as a status symbol of victory, lineage and control, but love is colour blind.  What’s under attack, constantly, is the forces of orthodoxy.

Yes, the Nazi-style imagery that accompanies John Hannah’s Theseus may seem clunky if you’re not attuned to Russell T Davies’s upfront-and-be-damned approach to telling stories.  But none of this is fake.  Even when there are embellishments – such as Theseus’s eventual fate – all of it is very consistently drawn from the world of the text.

And then there’s Elaine Paige – for one night only, partnered up with Matt Lucas, Richard Wilson and Bernard Cribbins.  Ad libs are permitted, so there is at least one reference to Little Britain, and – what joy! – we get a company of Mechanicals where the audience are having as much fun as the actors.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream Snout (BERNARD CRIBBINS) -

If you have ever cringed your way through the Pyramus and Thisbe scene, the sly editing of it here – intercut with shots of the fairies’ assault on the court – turns it into comic counterpoint rather than main event.  By the end, if you’re not grinning like a loon, this particular love potion hasn’t worked.

So now let’s marvel at the final thing – that 90 minutes of Shakespeare, using the original text, was broadcast at 8.30pm on BBC One on a Bank Holiday evening.  Can you imagine any of the commercial channels doing that?  The most you’d be likely to get is a modern-day Romeo and Juliet, set on two rival council estates, with none of the original dialogue.  It could be brilliant, but it wouldn’t be Shakespeare.

That the BBC is willing to do this is itself joyous – an expression of free spirit that should itself be celebrated and protected.  After all, if tonight’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream has reminded us of anything, it’s that manacling the things we claim to love is never cool.

Aired at 8.30pm on Monday 30 May 2016 on BBC One.

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Did you enjoy A Midsummer Night’s Dream? Let us know below…

  • Dr. Moo

    Thoroughly entertaining, that was how Shakespeare should be done – no stuffy classrooms, boring teachers and dull overanalysing of the text to be found here! Just a great story well told.

    Also: BERNARD CRIBBENS!!!

  • Ellis

    It would be so easy to discount this brave reinterpretation of the play, and I almost did during the first few minutes, but soon found myself spellbound. This was a true 21st century vision of life, and oh how hard it is to adapt with a 20th century mindset. That ‘Love’ seems to have no more formal restraint must be a grand idea, and Shakespeare, were he able to view this version, would hopefully agree. If only some of the horrors of our real world could be as easily and quickly translated to joy by the eternal wisdom of the bard’s words and a courageous director.

  • Edward Delingford

    I was a bit worried when Davies said he had sought the advice of a (sic) expert on Shakespeare, David Tennant. That comment alone has generated much hilarity in Shakespeare circles given Tennant’s rather poor and limited scorecard in Shakespeare. However, Shakespeare need not have worried that he would be overshadowed by two such titanic (and modest) giants of Bardom as we got RTD’s dream, not Shakespeare’s in the end and circumstances intervened to prevent Tennant’s actual participation, although allegedly he contributed one of the crude sight gags.

    It was fun for what it was – loud, crass, brassy , disposable, but very entertaining in the moment. In other words, RTD’s Who in a nutshell. It suffered from some of the bugbears of RTD’s Who with overloud and intrusive music often drowning out the dialogue, am dram walk on parts, being hit over the head by the bleedin’ obvious and choosing spectacle over substance. However we did get a great Titania in Maxine Peake and a passable Bottom in Matt Lucas and Richard Wilson and Bernard Cribbins are always welcome. Infinitely better and more attuned to public sensibilities than the cringeworthy tripe served up a month or so ago by the RSC’s gala hosted in embarrasing fashion by la Tennant and la Tate.

    There is no doubt RTD has his finger on the popular pulse and this was a pleasant enough way to spend 90 minutes in his company, but Shakespeare it ain’t.

  • Daniel

    That was certainly a mangled version. I can understand why Shakespeare purists loathed this but if you are not familiar with the text and happy to park your critical facilities at the door, that was enjoyable.

  • Marcie

    Shockingly poor ratings but no surprise. Having RTD’s name attached will have put off a lot of people, the fake controversy about the same sex kissing plus it is Shakespeare will also drive away viewers looking for something light and entertaining on a Bank Holiday weekend. Bet BBC won’t make the same mistake again. It wasn’t that good anyway – far too much self indulgence from RTD and not enough Shakespeare. Poor old RTD has become s bit of a caricature – all hot air and bluster and no substance. Bit like his time on DW.

  • MargaretL

    Emperor’s new clothes syndrome. If anyone other than Russell T Davies brought this tripe to the BBC they would have been laughed out the door. I guess the BBC feel they still owe him for getting Doctor Who off the ground successfully. After the massive negative public reaction and the poor ratings, I think the BBC can call it even now and shut the door next time he comes a’knocking.

  • Wizza

    I can only assume people who had a problem with this adaptation are people who have literally never seen a Shakespeare adaptation before. Baz Luhrmann took 100 times more creative liberties in Romeo + Juliet, to name but one. Shakespeare exists to be twisted about, and applied to the time and place it’s in. That’s why it’s lasted. Get. Over it.

    • Alex Thornton

      Too right. Also, who knows what went around in the original folios – what we have may well be the extended cut.

  • Anon435

    A monument to Davies’ vanity with no regard for the play itself. Look forward to his version of Hamlet with Claudius revealed to be the Master and ending with Hamlet whining that he doesn’t want to go and Romeo and Juliet with Juliet being rescued at the last minute by Romeo reviving her by locking into the psychic matrix around Verona and then making metacrisis duplicates of themselves and disappearing into a Tardis disguised as a column. Oh and Othello snivelling over Desdemona saying that he is sorry, so sorry. Pandering lowest common denominator television stuffed full of the vast ego of the crestor. Well that’s enough about Davies’ Who, and this wasn’t much better.

  • Bardotti

    Pretty fun but not really Shakespeare, sorry. BBC did a much better job with the Hollow Crown series. That took liberties and cut out a large part of the text of the Henry 6 trilogy but kept largely to the spirit of Shakespeare’s vision. Cumberbatch and Okonedo were superb and Cumberbatch has now easily established himself as our foremost interpreter of Shakespeare after his once in a generation Richard 3 and electrically charismatic Hamlet. While BBC radio 3 and 4 have done a stirling job covering Shakespeare in this anniversary year, BBC television have let the side down. The Ben Elton sitcom is very poor meat and the gala concert was simply an embarrasment and the RSC and everyone associated with thst should really be ashamed. Apart from the Hollow Crown, the only other decent thing BBC television has done was the Philomena Clunk mocumentary funnily enough. I am really tired of the BBC chasing mediocre celebrity writers like Davies, rather than genuine talents or new voices.

    • Edward Delingford

      The Beeb have let the side down. RTD’s Dream was at least entertaining and didn’t feature David Tennant and Catherine Tate fawning over the assembled luvvies that the RSC cringefest did. I quite like David Mitchell in Upstart Crow but apart from Hollow Crown, BBC have really messed up. They are sitting on a veritable treasure trove of Shakespearean drama from the grand old days of television which they could have shown on BBC 4 or run late at night. Imagine seeing the true greats like Maggie Smith, Paul Scofield, ian McKellan, Robert Stephens, David Warner, Judi Dench in their prime. A huge missed opportunity.

      Cumberbatch has really come into his own. I think I must be the only person in the world who doesn’t care that much about Cumberbatch’s Sherlock, but as a speaker of Shakespeare’s verse and his ability to communicate Shakespeare with such clarity he is unparalleled at the moment. Too may actors don’t seem to bother learning how to do this properly. Tennant and Tate could both learn a lot about performing Shakespeare from him based on their tone deaf readings from the RSC gala. Tennant was passable in Hamlet but missed a lot of the poetry in resorting to Who style gurning and over emoting, Richard II was just misconceived on every level. I wonder if the RSC are going to trot him out again at some stage. I hope he gets more sympathetic casting but will probably insist again on having a lead role. I think his light comedic talents would serve him better in one of the big secondary parts like Jacques or Orsino as he doesn’t have the right skill set for any of the great leading dramatic parts.

  • Gabby01

    C’mon that might have been bad Shakespeare but it sure was fun to watch. I bet most of the grumps here also turned their noses up at Versailles. Nobody expects anything written by Russell T (Peter Pan Fairy Jesus Tinkerbell Doctor) Davies to be anything but over the top and full of stupids but he sure knows his way around capital K kitsch. Turn off your brains and critical facilities and just chill.