O ne Midsummer’s day, rambling at the Hay
Exeposé learned of the BBC play,
“Watch it! It’s marvelous,” he told the crowd,
For Russell T. Davies the applause rang out loud.
Then I went away, forming this review
Whose form now brakes off, to introduce it to you. Oh, and spoilers.
Russell T Davies successfully rebooted Doctor Who, and now the writer himself that has gone back in time to reword a modern adaptation of Shakespeare. At the Hay festival in Wales, I listened to him talk about his new BBC1 production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. He began by telling us about his interesting casting process. The stars of the show are star actors, the mechanicals are beloved sit-com actors, and the young lovers are themselves young and new actors. This is clever casting, and, having since watched the end product, I thought it landed some very likeable performances. Star Maxine Peake looked the part in Titania’s siphon costume. Beloved Matt Lucas was made to be Bottom. And whoever in the last category played Lysander, well, that guy was pretty decent too.
The episode is meant for both adults and children. Oberon’s line “wake when some vile thing is near” is excellently interpreted, said in such a way that might please many who have read the play. But the writer’s objective was also to create a watchable rendition for kids. For example, there is a slapstick hand-pump gag, apparently thanks to the inspired David Tennant, which actually worked well within the script. But making it humourous for a younger demographic might have come at a cost. For example, it felt like the comic genius of Shakespeare might have been somewhat lost by making the wall an all too convincing and realistic wall. Overall though, a good balance was struck. Apart from the minor heart-attack at the beginning – a surreal cocktail of Star Wars, Doctor Who and Hitler – it was visceral without sacrificing the essence of the play.
As well as these additions, there were also subtractions. Russell T Davies took a “practical” approach to editing the play, although he said that while he did so he sweated a great deal. Overall, he adapted it well to television. There was “no need for the fairies introduction” in his version, but, and as he made clear, this doesn’t mean that it isn’t great poetry. It simply didn’t suit the format. It wasn’t essential. But what also wasn’t essential was Tatania’s arrival on set via a miniature tornado. I doubt such an entrance ever crossed the bard’s mind. But why shouldn’t Titania do that on television? Davies’ view is: “Why not? I’ve got CGI. I’ve got the Doctor Who department!”
Unfortunately, the more intrinsic changes crunched like fallen leaves on the forest floor. Theseus is killed at the end. Why? Why? I still don’t know. It didn’t make any sense. At the Hay, Davies argued that the play has always been adapted and there is no full version of the play. And anyway, there was no battle to be had with purists of Shakespeare, because he wasn’t sure “these people actually exist.”
Here we arrive at the crux of the matter. This isn’t merely a kid’s play with concern only for aesthetics and simplification. This is also a feminist production. Cut from the play are lines such as “use me” and laments such as “plunge in deep and kill me too.” These are cut, Davies said, because this was not the female standard of 2016. “I will not transmit lines where women are so much in love that they threaten to commit suicide.” I clapped alongside the audience in appreciation. But alongside these snips he also sewed onto the finale a levitating girl-on-girl kiss. Like the demise of Theseus, the kiss didn’t seem to work within the plot, and indeed Davies gave it no real justification, save for: “it just comes naturally.” Fair enough.
the more intrinsic changes crunched like fallen leaves on the forest floor
Let us then return, in a flash of too-bright-puck-light, to these non-existent purists. During the Q and A, one questioner asked a question that I will condense: “Given the changes in this play, what next? Would you exclude death by poison at the end of Romeo and Juliet?” Davies bristled in his chair. “I’m disappointed in that question,” he scolded. “That is a really trite question.”
For someone who made it very clear the care with which he used Shakespeare’s words, one might think that he would choose his own words with more care. Remember that according to him purists do not exist, so can this question be trite? There is nothing inherently wrong with editing Shakespeare, but there is when important edits don’t make sense. Hippolyta is actually a strong female character in Shakespeare’s original, and yet in this she has been reduced to someone who is first presented to us in bondage and then at the end must be saved like a damsel in distress. Moreover, in trying to make the feminist perspective more prominent, we are left with easy clarity at the expense of worthwhile moral confusion. An example would be when Davies cuts the line: “I’ll die upon the hand I love so well.” This is an omission, that while cut with good intent, I am not sure an eight-o’clock female audience needs to be protected from. Modernity can be left to pick apart contextual problems without such obvious tailoring.
“My take on this is a battle of the sexes,” Davies said. “If you meet someone who has a problem with the ending, you meet someone who has a problem.” This is a step too far. Someone can object to the ending because it simply wasn’t executed very well. Within the context of his restructured play we are left with a footling resolution. It is an insult, with the intent of deflection, when he says that people who have a problem are people with problems. For just as I think his ending was farcical, I loved his modern tryst twist with Lysander and Demetrius. It worked perfectly, as in Helena’s wonderful line: “I see you’re all bent to set against your merriment.” The slight emphasis on, the minor pause after, “bent”.
Davies thinks Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream is the “perfect play.” His adaptation has left it far from perfect. I imagine that deep down he recognises this, just as I imagine he would rightly recognise my starting couplets to be pretentious. He has the literary instinct. During the talk, he admitted to hating the ending of The Tempest. We can agree on that. It would be more interesting to see what he would do with that ending, then what he did with this one.