Tuesday, August 12, 2014

A Midsummer Night's Dream: Other Versions

A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which literary critic Harold Bloom asserted is among Shakespeare’s best plays, if not the very best, has been interpreted in many ways and forms. It’s been done as an opera by Benjamin Britten and a ballet by Balanchine. Felix Mendelssohn wrote music for it that has become so associated with the play that for centuries it was rarely performed without this musical accompaniment.

On the stage, Bloom called Peter Brook’s 1970 production an abomination, but Frank Rich is among those critics who considered it a masterpiece.  It became known for the use of trapezes and acrobatics.  Brook wrote about it in his book The Shifting Point in terms of themes (it is thoroughly about love, he maintains) and it seems from these pages that this was an interpretation very much influenced by the 1960s, including the gap between the generations.  Brook wrote about it again in the more autobiographical Threads of Time, concentrating on the process of creating it.  The cast worked on gymnastics and other exercises, and then when they were tired and ready to relax, they read the play aloud.  Gradually as they became more physically fit and familiar with each other, they ended the day discussing the play.  Brook felt this worked much better that starting with a table reading.  It's an interesting chapter.

Subsequent stage productions include some that saw a darker side to themes and characters in the play.  Some productions used the opportunities provided by the play to emphasize sex, sometimes in unconventional interpretations.  Some of this is theatrical overkill (the musicalization of Shakespeare) and intellectual laziness.  But there are darker areas in this play than are explored in most productions, especially of the Shakespeare-in-the-Park "family viewing" kind.  These themes and even speeches (noted by commentators like those mentioned in the above post) are part of Shakespeare's exploration of the unconscious, of the worlds of waking conventions and the "fierce vexations of a dream."

There are several versions of the play on film. The 1935 Hollywood version is notable for film stars in classical roles (James Cagney as Bottom, a young Mickey Rooney as Puck), for using Mendelsson’s music and for utilizing the play’s opportunities for visual effects possible only on film.

 Peter Hall reconceived his stage version for a 1968 film (Bloom’s favorite.) Paul Rogers plays Bottom, Ian Richardson plays Oberon and Ian Holm is a brilliant Puck.  Among the lovers are young actors Helen Mirren, Diana Rigg and David Warner (whose 1965 stage Hamlet is now legendary, though it wasn’t preserved on film.) The setting is supposedly Athens but it is noticeably influenced by the Carnaby Street fashions of the swinging sixties. In the 60s and 70s films, nudity in serious films was much more common than now, and the costume of Titania—played by the young Judi Dench—leaves little to the imagination. (Several Dench children play fairies.)  This is a pretty complete version of the play, that seems to have fewer cuts than these other film versions. And it's not bad as a film, though recognizably a '60s- style movie (not '60s zooms so much as jump cuts.)

There’s a 1998 film version of the popular Royal Shakespeare Company stage production directed by Adrian Noble. The play is re-conceived and stylized with some success (maybe not a lot) though Lindsay Duncan’s performance as Titania is itself reason to seek it out.

A 1999 Hollywood movie version is more interesting and satisfying. It moves the action to late 19th century Italy, which allows it to make droll use of new “magical” technologies like bicycles and the phonograph. The cast is composed mainly of experienced American and English film actors. It is very cinematic, with many dialogues in close-up and speeches almost whispered (particularly Rupert Everett as Oberon) which play remarkably well for a play originally meant to be shouted from the Elizabethan stage.

Dominic West (star of TV’s The Wire), Christian Bale, Calista Flockhart and Sam Rockwell are among today’s more recognizable names in this 1999 film—they acquit themselves well. (There’s a supply of bare skin in this version too, a lot of it Dominic West’s. Still, the mud wrestling sequence was a bit much.)

Stanley Tucci is a terrific Puck, Michelle Pfeiffer is a surprisingly good Titania, and Kevin Kline is a memorable Bottom.

There’s some wonderful invention in this version, and the Pyramus and Thisbe playlet is the best I’ve seen—very funny and then moving. And you see how much was at stake for the craftsmen who performed it. (There’s a performance of just this playlet by the Beatles viewable on youtube: not a musical version but an actual if somewhat improvised performance.)

 This 1999 film is notable also for using the well-known Wedding March in its original context—it was written by Mendelssohn for this marriage scene. Like the Redwood Park version I saw, it shortens the duke’s famous speech about the imagination. Perhaps they used the same script?

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