Film Review: A Midsummer Night’s Dream

From now until the break of day/Through this house each fairy stray.

Oberon, the Fairy King

The plot of Shakespeare’s Dream is probably familiar to everyone who ever did English GCSE: in a not-very-classical Athens ruled over by a King Theseus about to marry his conquered Amazonian foe Hippolyta, Hermia and Lysander are in love. Hermia’s father Aegeus, however, thinks Demetrius would be a better match, and threatens Hermia with death if she doesn’t comply with his wishes. Meanwhile, ugly duckling Helena lusts for the uninterested Demetrius.

Hermia and Lysander flee into the woods outside Athens, pursued by Demetrius, who is in turn pursued by a lovelorn Helena. But once in the fairy-haunted forest, of course, everything changes: the fairy King and Queen Oberon and Titania are in the throes of an almighty domestic. Oberon, however, possibly in a mood of sentimentality, instructs his tricksy servant Puck to have Demetrius fall in love with Helena instead of Hermia. But Puck is, er, puckish, and predictable high jinks ensue.

It’s not really a play that deals too much with psychological realism or, indeed, realism of any kind, and Russell T. Davies’ new adaptation for the BBC isn’t really interested in working out the plot’s more egregious holes. (For example, why does Oberon have Titania fall in love with Bottom, the rude mechanical? Surely there are better methods of revenge?) No, Davies invests his energy in the cultivation of affect and symbol (as he did when he ran Doctor Who): in the surface that the play presents to us.

And what a surface it is! Moving from the austere, classically-inspired court of Theseus to the East End pub where the Mechanicals practice their play to the otherworldly forest and back again, the film is a riot of faerie colour, beautifully lit and costumed, with some nice special effects (and some not-so-nice ones). Add to that Murray Gold’s admittedly rather bombastic score, and you get something ridiculously, gloriously operatic.

None of this is to say that Davies’ Dream is superficial; or, rather, it is, but it’s superficial in a very specific and deliberate way. And here I want to look at the ending of the film, and how Davies draws together his threads of symbol.

Davies’ main departure from the original play is in casting Theseus not as a wise and benevolent king (a la Theoden) but as a cynical and cruel tyrant (a la Darth Vader. More or less). So Hippolyta, his (Asian) queen, is no willing bride but a straight-jacketed prisoner, forced to read words of love from a teleprompter.

Theseus-Hippolyta is nicely echoed by Oberon-Titania: Davies’ second, and in this climate more radical, change to the text is having Oberon and Titania fall out not over an Indian child they both want in their retinue but simple jealousy. Titania and Hippolyta are – or were: the chronology isn’t clear – lovers.

(Incidentally, this rather neatly transfers the colonial anxieties in the play squarely onto Theseus’ head.)

So when the end of the play sees Hippolyta and Titania growing butterfly wings and snogging (Theseus is dead of a heart attack and Oberon has got over his jealousy) it’s a powerful visual symbol of queer emancipation.

And I want to add to that a word about racial coding. Every single romantic pairing that makes it to the end of the play is an interracial one. Demetrius and Hermia are both Black, which means Aegeus’ desire to see them married – instead of Lysander and Hermia – can be read as a conservative desire to prevent interracial marriage. Again, considering that the symbolic role of marriage in a Shakespeare comedy is unification, this is a powerful symbol of where the film’s politics lie: with integration, with multiculturalism.

These are not nuanced or sophisticated narrative ploys. There are hosts of problematics drawn up behind their superficialities. But: this kind of thing never happens in mainstream television. Not on this scale, and not with this wild, unapologetic joy. This is fucking huge.

(And, yes, my reaction to all of this is incredibly personal and incredibly subjective, because I can count on one hand the number of decent QUILTBAG characters I’ve come across in SFF, and you know what, it’s nice to see people like me celebrated for once in this incredibly artful and artless way.)

Finally, I want to talk about how Davies treats Shakespeare’s play-within-a-play, the Mechanicals’ Pyramus and Thisbe, which I want to argue provides a model for how we can read Davies’ Dream.

As noted above, Theseus dies of a heart attack, just as Flute/Thisbe is performing his/her death over Bottom/Pyramus’ body. The words Flute is speaking thus have a real-world resonance the performer doesn’t have access to. Another thing: the Mechanicals’ play becomes a carnivalesque space in which the underprivileged and powerless working class can speak a kind of truth to power. Theseus’ anger as the Mechanicals refuse (not intending insolence) to go along with his assertions as to how their play should work is a symptom of his temporary powerlessness: in Pyramus and Thisbe, it’s the powerless who suddenly have the power, to shape this artistic world as they see fit. It is theirs, not Theseus’. And a third thing: much is made throughout the Dream of the Mechanicals’ (apolitical) desire to assure the court that their play isn’t real. And yet their prologue, which announces it as not real, is, through Elaine Paige’s genius delivery, mangled into something which sounds inflammatory without meaning to be: “In despite we do not come/As minding to content you/Our true delight is” becomes “We do not come as minding to content you.” The message seems clear: as ridiculous, as superficial as the Mechanicals’ performance is, its political resonances are yet vital and real.

So, when Puck finishes the film with his wild monologue:

If we shadows have offended,

Think but this, and all is mended:

That you have but slumbered here

While these visions do appear

he is announcing the play as fiction, as dream, as, precisely, superficial (“visions”); but he is also, by the exact virtue of announcing it as harmless fiction, asking us to remember how politically potent even the least overtly political artistic creations are. Art is, Davies wants us to know, always already political: it gives the powerless power, it represents minorities in the halls of the privileged, it resonates in strange ways with the straight-jacket of the real.

And of course this is a rose-tinted and superficial view of art. Of course it is a utopian dream of artistic creation which doesn’t come close to manifesting in today’s capitalist society. But, in the aftermath of a disastrous campaign which has shattered Britain’s short-term economy, its political system and its unity, it is exactly the kind of dream we need: one which dares to imagine a voice for the working class without succumbing to regressive right-wing ideology.

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