Monday, 9 July 2012

A Midsummer Night's Dream (1968/81)

By William Shakespeare (c1595)

National Youth Theatre, 1964
Feature film, 1968
BBC television, 1981

On 29 September 1662 Samuel Pepys attended the King’s Theatre for a performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. He’d never seen the play before, nor ever would again, as he confided to his diary, ‘for it is the most insipid ridiculous play that ever I saw in my life’. The only redeeming features were ‘some good dancing and some handsome women’. Even allowing that the version he saw was probably much truncated, I know what he means. I’ve never seen a satisfactory production of this play. It usually comes out too frothy and pretty. The ideal Dream would present it as a comedy surrounded by a penumbra of troubled seriousness. Over the years there have been critical revaluations that push in that direction. In the 1960s Jan Kott, in a reading that influenced Peter Brook’s famous production at the end of that decade, found darkness not just at the edges but everywhere in the play. Relating Bottom’s dream to Goya’s Caprichos, he saw bestiality and miscegenation in Titania’s sleeping with an ass. He saw masochism in Helena’s submissiveness to her scornful lover (‘The more you beat me, I will fawn on you: | Use me but as your spaniel, spurn me, strike me…’) As he rightly said, the wood is not a benign place. When Titania beds down for the night, her attendants must ward off all manner of creepy-crawlies. These include the selfsame creatures that contribute their ‘poison’d entrails’ to the witches’ cauldron in Macbeth. The fairies are not the wisps of gossamer who stream through Max Reinhardt’s Hollywood film of the 1930s but something more equivocal. In the realm of fairy, Oberon’s and Puck’s ability to do good lies in their capacity to withhold mischief.

Mischief, not black magic. Kott went too far. After all, a strong body of opinion holds that Shakespeare’s play was written originally for an aristocratic wedding celebration and its elements contrived to flatter that audience, which may have included the Queen – ‘our imperial vot’ress’, in Oberon’s phrase. So ‘light entertainment’ was surely what was called for? But, if so, they’d commissioned a playwright incapable of turning out ephemera or trivia. ‘Sedimented within the verbal texture of A Midsummer Night’s Dream’, writes Louis Adrian Montrose, in another of the influential essays on the text, ‘are traces of those forms of sexual and familial violence which the play would suppress.’ The play is marbled with what he calls ‘anxious misogyny’, right from the opening scene, where Duke Theseus has bridled the Amazon queen Hippolyta and Egeus threatens an ‘honour killing’ for his rebellious daughter who refuses to marry the man he has chosen for her.

‘But at the same time that the play reaffirms essential elements of a patriarchal ideology, it also calls that reaffirmation in question’ (Montrose again). As so often in Shakespeare’s comedies, the strongest characters are the female ones. The young men, Demetrius and Lysander, are barely differentiated, which makes it easier for them to undergo random transformations under the influence of the fairies’ love-juice. The two heroines, Hermia and Helena, remain constant in their affections (to their young men, if not to each other). Hermia, no ing√©nue she, knows her own mind, asserting the claims of romantic love over arranged marriage. And by Act IV the patriarchal imperative has softened. While her father continues to demand that the ‘law’ run its course, the Duke overrules him and permits the lovers to wed.

So all is set up for a comedy resolution in marriage. But is the symmetry perfect? This troubles me. Lysander is restored to his true love (Hermia) after Puck has administered the antidote. Yet Demetrius, apparently denied or judged not to be in need of the antidote, remains to the end under the influence of ‘love-in-idleness’, the fairy Rohypnol. He says he has reverted to his first romantic inclination – his heart to Helena is now ‘home return’d’ (III.ii.172, cf. IV.i.173) – but who’s to say it isn’t the drug talking?

None of these problems (if such they be) is resolved by the various productions in which Helen Mirren appeared. She played Helena with the National Youth Theatre in a 1964 production (‘bad casting as Helena is supposed to be tall and thin and I was short and fattish’, she wrote later) and Hermia in Peter Hall’s 1968 film, then returned as Titania in the 1981 BBC TV version. Of these, the latter captures best the psychosexual ambiguities I refer to, but even this fell short of what it might be.

Hall’s film was made on location in and around a country house, Compton Verney in Warwickshire. Visually beautiful, it suggests a house party of hip youngsters, togged out in Sixties dress. Faces daubed with mud may evoke the ‘dank and dirty ground’ of Shakespeare’s text, but the look remains if anything too beautiful. Helena, played in the later BBC production as a stereotype ‘librarian’ in granny glasses, is here rendered by Diana Rigg, an actress who was far more lusted after in the Sixties than the then relatively unknown Helen Mirren. Hall used disruptive ‘jump cuts’ to present illusion, while employing a hand-held camera to give simulated ‘reality’. By ‘post-synching’ all the dialogue, he got around the difficulties in those days of location filming and put the emphasis back on the text. As he told Roger Manvell, ‘This is not a film from a stage production or a film based on the play. It attempts to bend the medium of the film to reveal the full quality of the text.’

In her autobiography, Mirren says of Titania: ‘It was a role I had always wanted to play but which had eluded me, though I had played both Hermia and Helena, neither of which appealed to me.’ She explains that the BBC production came at a difficult time for her: her father had just died suddenly and she ‘found it almost impossible to act’. What helped her through, she recalls, was a great director (Elijah Moshinsky), the rest of the cast and a spectacular, character-forming wig made out of ‘pure, unbleached, very long, fine white-blonde hair’. In her book about the BBC Shakespeare series, Susan Willis comments on how Moshinsky’s camera ‘lovingly lingers [on Mirren] in mid-pool or mid-bower’. The production, as if bathed in aqueous solution, is dominated by a prominent water-feature, part of the set, through which Titania’s slightly ragged train must wade. Puck is a jagged-toothed punk, like an escapee from A Clockwork Orange. These are pointers in the right direction. Perhaps the Beeb could do it better now? A recent Richard II on television shows how much more fluent production styles have become in the last thirty years and how this ‘insipid ridiculous play’ might be reclaimed for a new generation of viewers.  

Jan Kott, Shakespeare Our Contemporary (1967)
Roger Manvell, Shakespeare and the Film (1971)
Helen Mirren, In the Frame: My Life in Words and Pictures (2007)
Louis Adrian Montrose, ‘Shaping fantasies: figurations of gender and power in Elizabethan culture’ (1983), in A Midsummer Night’s Dream: New Casebooks, ed Richard Dutton (1996)
Susan Willis, The BBC Shakespeare Plays: Making the Televised Canon (1991)


  1. While initially I was searching for the subtitles to the film in question, I am very glad to have come across this blog. As a foreigner I was always curious how Britons interpret Shakespeare. Thank you for this unique opportunity.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Galya. I hope you like the other posts. Helen performed a good deal of Shakespeare in her youth. Knowing her love of the Bard, I'm sure she would have carried on, but of course there are very few roles for older women in Shakespeare.

  2. George Danochristos28 November 2018 at 13:38

    Since 2014 did she come across the English subtitle? Need the link too if you have one (film length 1:58:26 24fps).

  3. This is a link to the Peter Hall film: There doesn't seem to be a subtitled version. Sorry.