Directed by Elijah Moshinksy. UK. 1981.

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A BBC, Time-Life production from the early 1980s, this TV adaptation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream has all of Shakespeare’s words but none of the magic. Trying to ensure that none of the text is left out, the actors deliver their lines at a breakneck pace, almost sounding like the debating team in Rocket Science. Consequently, much of Shakespeare’s nuance and poetry is lost. This is a play that relies on myth and allegory to make its point which is essentially that reality is malleable and can be influenced by the spirit world for either good or ill, yet its treatment here is cumbersome and heavy-handed rather than light and playful.

The play, replete with allusions to Greek mythology, is about a trio of mixed-up lovers: Hermia, Denetrius, and Lysander. Hermia’s overbearing father Egeus is partial to Demetrius, his choice to be Hermia’s husband. Indeed, Egeus’ description in the play’s first scene of his love for Demetrius sounds suspiciously like Shakespeare’s entreaties to the fair youth in the Sonnets. In the same vein, Duke Theseus, who is marrying former enemy Hippolyta, sounds the refrain that the duty of a beloved youth is to make a copy of himself to preserve for future generations. Meanwhile Hermia is fixated on Lysander and will not consider anyone else as a husband, although choosing to disobey her father may lead to a potential death sentence or life as a nun which may be the same thing. To escape, Hermia agrees to run off with Lysander into the forest but naively conveys the information to Helena, a young maiden who longs for Demetrius. 

She follows Demetrius into the forest to try and stop Hermia and Lysander but they come upon a group of fairies who have their own agenda, leading to a romantic farce of mistaken identities caused by the fairies magical potions. One of the subplots concerns a theatrical troupe of workers who offer a play within a play that bring the proceedings to a comic high. The cast is competent but uninspired with the possible exception of Helen Mirren as The Faerie Queen. Nicky Henson as Demetrius and Robert Lindsay as Lysander seem too old for the part of young lovers and speak their lines with a clunky earnestness that is all wrong for the mood. Phil Daniels plays Puck with a demonic grin, belying the characters’ playful nature. All in all, work of nimble grace is turned into an often incomprehensible shouting match that makes one long for some of the magic fairies potion - to sleep, perchance to dream.


Howard Schumann
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