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A Midsummer Night's Dream On Screen

Film and TV adaptations of the dream-and-reality masterpiece

Main image of A Midsummer Night's Dream On Screen

Unquestionably one of Shakespeare's supreme masterpieces, A Midsummer Night's Dream may also be his single most popular play, and with good reason: it segues seamlessly from dream to reality, highbrow to lowbrow, rarefied romance to earthy slapstick, and a good production should be both intensely moving and laugh-out-loud funny. It is thought to have been written in 1595-96, probably shortly after Love's Labour's Lost, with which it shares a preoccupation with the nature of love and a climax in which a stage production goes disastrously wrong. It was based on a wide range of sources, including Geoffrey Chaucer's fourteenth-century The Knight's Tale and two classical works, Ovid's Metamorphoses and Apuleius's The Golden Ass.

There have been a great many adaptations of the Dream for both film and television, though British producers came to it surprisingly late, despite its obvious cinematic potential potential - the sheer number of foreign adaptations, from Vitagraph's in 1909 to the famous Max Reinhardt Hollywood version of 1935 may have provided too much competition. The comedy Pimple's Midsummer Night's Dream (d. Fred Evans, 1917) would appear to have nothing to do with Shakespeare aside from the title, and though the musical comedy Mr Cinders (d. Friedrich Zelnik, 1934) featured scenes from the play, the first bona fide British screen adaptation was made for television, broadcast live on 23 April 1937 (Shakespeare's birthday). This consisted of a Mendelssohn-scored arrangement of selected scenes from the play, and was never recorded.

On 26 November and 3 December 1950 the BBC broadcast two scenes from the play aimed at schools, 'The Transformation of Bottom' and 'The Play', starring Robert Atkins as Bottom. A few months later, on 17 April 1951, the BBC broadcast Atkins' adaptation of the entire play, again with children as the target audience.

The earliest surviving television adaptation was broadcast on 9 November 1958, in the BBC's Sunday-Night Theatre slot. Adapted by Eric Crozier (who performed similar duties on the much more ambitious An Age of Kings two years later) and produced by Rudolph Cartier, the largely traditional production starred John Justin (Oberon), Natasha Parry (Titania), Paul Rogers (Bottom) and dancer/choreographer Gillian Lynne (Puck). The same year, the big-screen Associated-British/Pathé travelogue Three Seasons incorporated a scene from the Old Vic production featuring Frankie Howerd (Bottom), Paul Daneman (Quince) and Joyce Redman (Titania).

On 24 June 1964, ITV broadcast arguably the most famous television Dream, directed by Joan Kemp-Welch and starring Peter Wyngarde (Oberon), Anna Massey (Titania), Jill Bennett (Helena), Miles Malleson (Quince), Alfie Bass (Flute) and Bernard Bresslaw (Snout), though the production garnered most attention (and popularity) for its casting of comedian Benny Hill as Bottom.

Peter Hall's Royal Shakespeare Company production was adapted for the big screen in 1968 and enhanced by a virtually uncut script delivered by a starry cast that included Ian Richardson (Oberon), Judi Dench (Titania), David Warner (Lysander), Diana Rigg (Helena), Helen Mirren (Hermia) and Ian Holm (Puck), with Paul Rogers' Bottom coming in for particular praise for his decision to play the part completely straight, in stark contrast to the usual gurning buffoon. Hall's hyperactive, New Wave-influenced direction with its rapid camera movements and jarring jump-cuts came in for much criticism, and many of the costumes betray the era in which it was filmed, but it remains one of the most authentically sensual Dreams yet committed to celluloid.

The BBC's Play of the Month slot featured A Midsummer Night's Dream on 26 September 1971. James Cellan Jones' generally delightful production, partly shot on location in Kent, starred Eileen Atkins (Titania), Robert Stephens (Oberon), Lynn Redgrave (Helena), Edward Fox (Lysander), Michael Gambon (Theseus), Eleanor Bron (Hippolyta) and a perfectly-cast Ronnie Barker as Bottom, backed up by John Laurie's Peter Quince. Although best known at the time for Dad's Army (BBC, 1968-77), Laurie was also a hugely experienced Shakespeare performer who had appeared in all four of Laurence Olivier's big-screen Shakespeare films (including the 1937 As You Like It).

The BBC Television Shakespeare adaptation was directed by Elijah Moshinsky and broadcast on 13 December 1981 in a dark-hued, somewhat claustrophobic and vaguely menacing production very strongly influenced by seventeenth-century Dutch painting, starring Nigel Davenport (Theseus), Helen Mirren (Titania), Robert Lindsay (Lysander), Pippa Guard (Hermia), Brian Glover (Bottom) and Phil Daniels (Puck). A few days earlier, on 10 December, the accompanying Shakespeare in Perspective documentary was presented by Roy Strong.

In 1984, Celestino Coronado, who had made a memorably inventive avant-garde version of Hamlet (1976) while still a student, adapted Lindsay Kemp's stage Dream into a feature film, originally intended for Spanish television but given a British theatrical release after a successful London Film Festival airing. As with Coronado's Hamlet, prior familiarity with the play is all but essential to make sense of it, as it has a similarly wayward approach to cutting (over 75%) and reshuffling Shakespeare's original text, and altering several key elements (it climaxes with a production of Romeo and Juliet on stilts, instead of Pyramus and Thisbe). Kemp himself plays an exaggeratedly voyeuristic Puck, and the play's underlying sexual themes are brought well to the fore.

In 1996, Adrian Noble adapted his Royal Shakespeare Company production for the big screen. Though clearly sourced from a stage production and full of much obvious mechanical trickery (as well as a narrative gimmick of establishing the dream as being that of a hyper-imaginative schoolboy, accompanied by imagery from other children's classics including Peter Pan, Mary Poppins and the works of Beatrix Potter), it nonetheless gave a good account of the play, thanks largely to the matchless RSC-trained delivery of a cast that included Lindsay Duncan (Hippolyta/Titania), Alex Jennings (Theseus/Oberon), Desmond Barrit (Bottom) and Barry Lynch (Puck/Philostrate).

The most recent feature film (1999) was technically a US-German co-production, but Michael Hoffman's production had a strong British presence on both sides of the camera, including Rupert Everett (Oberon), Anna Friel (Hermia), Christian Bale (Demetrius), Roger Rees (Peter Quince), Bernard Hill (Egeus) and John Sessions (Philostratus).

Benjamin Britten's opera was given its own television adaptation, broadcast on Channel 4 on 3 August 1983, sourced from Peter Hall's Glyndebourne production starring James Bowman (Oberon), Ileana Cotrubas (Tytania), Damien Nash (Puck) and Felicity Lott (Helena), while the animator Tissa David provided Shakespeare-inspired interludes to adorn a televised performance of Mendelssohn's music (Channel 4, tx. 25/9/1987). Mendelssohn also provided the score for Frederick Ashton's Royal Opera House ballet adaptation The Dream, two separate productions of which were broadcast on BBC2 on 26 March 1967 and 7 May 1978, while the BBC's Dance Master Class series featured behind-the-scenes rehearsal footage (tx. 9/4/1988).

Michael Brooke

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