It is not often that televised adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays cause an outcry, but this one certainly did. I can see why, having watched it myself recently, but it seems to me to be tale with two sides.
I am not a Shakespeare purist but I do believe that it is best not to stray too far from the original source material. Partly this is because I think that it is somewhat disingenuous to take someone else’s work and then try to pass it off as one’s own, which most authors of adaptations seem to want to do. At least in this case the presentation was dubbed a ‘radical adaptation’ rather than the more common (these days) ‘re-imagining’, which is a term I loathe and freely interpret as plagiarism.
To be honest there is not much in this version that could be termed ‘radical’ in the truest sense. The basic story remains the same with just a few changes, only one of which might be termed fundamental in my opinion. This particular alteration is in the guise of Duke Theseus, well played by John Hannah, who is presented as a fascist dictator of Athens, complete with parodies of Nazi paraphernalia. I did not understand the need for this, although it has been used previously, Ian McKellen’s 1995 production of ‘Richard III’ for example. In that context it worked, in this it adds nothing. Indeed, I would go so far as to argue that it just confuses matters, particularly the relationship between Theseus and Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazon’s so recently defeated by the Duke of Athens and to be married to him. When she is wheeled in all dressed up like Hannibal Lecter, complete with face mask, you have to wonder what kind of future this couple are going to have.
This situation also robs Hippolyta of all of her dialogue reducing actress Eleanor Matsuura more to a spectator than a performer. It does not help the audience when in the few very brief scenes between her and Theseus she seemingly threatens some kind of mischief and the Duke’s guards switch off the safety settings on their guns.
For some reason Duke Theseus must be the villain of the piece in a play that is supposed to be a comedy and requires no genuine villains whatsoever. This is my main criticism of this adaptation. It is unnecessary and confusing and jars with the whimsy of introducing fairy-folk into human lives.
Surprisingly I seem to be one of the few who raised this objection, almost everyone else appearing to be obsessed with the overt homosexuality evinced in two men being bewitched into finding each other attractive and a lesbian kiss. This really does not bother me so much if it is done within a valid context. Let me illustrate my point, Puck enacts mischief by bewitching Demetrius into finding Lysander, his enemy and rival in love for the hand of Hermia, suddenly attractive. As a moment of comedy it actually works very well. Later, and for unexplained reasons, Titania, Queen of the Fairies, plants a kiss on the lips of Hippolyta as they float above the wedding ball. The Queen of the Amazons suddenly sprouts wings leaving you wondering was she always a fairy or was she transformed by Titania? No answers are forthcoming.
In his own defence Russell T Davies said, and I quote, “’I wanted to have a man with a man, a woman with a woman… because it’s 2016 now. That’s the world now and you want children to watch this and see the real world, in the middle of this fantasy.’ I find this a rather strange argument, first, the play is set in Athens, a city where homosexuality has never been exactly unknown, and second, the moment you try to impose the real world into a fantasy it stops being a fantasy! In fact I would go so far as to say that this personal requirement on the part of Mr Davies is a false imperative. As already stated the scene with Demetrius and Lysander works because it is funny and within context, but the scene with Titania and Hippolyta is simply gratuitous because it lacks context and, therefore, merit. Like the Nazi Duke Theseus it adds nothing and only confuses the matter.
Putting all this to one side I have to admit that I thoroughly enjoyed the rest of the presentation. Nonso Anozie was impressive as Oberon, Titania’s irate husband, full of awe and majesty, which is not necessarily easy to achieve for the King of the Fairies. He possessed a real gravitas that made his presence felt. Against this monarch of the forest the wilful sprite Robin ‘Puck’ Goodfellow needed to be someone with verve, charm, and mischief, and this was admirably achieved by Hiran Abeysekera. I really liked his version of Puck. Just an observation but these actors were but two of many black people to be seen in this presentation and the fact that no one seemed to notice or care about black faces in Athens suggests that race is something that people are beginning to care less and less about in such productions, which is exactly as it should be.
Someone else I thoroughly enjoyed watching was Matt Lucas as Bottom, a role that he excelled in. His comic timing, fluidity of movement, and his expressive face were put to great use. Sadly the same cannot be said for Richard Wilson as Starveling, Bernard Cribbins as Snout, and Elaine Paige as Mistress Quince, all of whom were sadly underused.
The production values were impressive resulting in a visual treat. The forest was dark but never ominous, a fitting place for fairy-folk but not a place of terrors for humans who have wandered off the path a little. Athens looked imposing, even with an Art Deco Parthenon atop of the Acropolis, and the use of iPads by the court officials was inspired. This was largely an enjoyable adaptation and I did not let the few criticism raised above spoil my entertainment. I doubt that it will go down as the one of the greats, which is a shame because it could so easily have been, but when an author refers to his critics as ‘idiots’ he is not going to win many friends. One thing that I have learnt is that when you put something into the public arena you cannot expect to please everyone and, also, that there are people out there who have far greater powers of perception and understanding that you might do, it would be wise to listen to them when they offer valid criticism otherwise you run the risk of becoming the idiot.