Surreal. That describes Adrian Noble’s 1996 film adaptation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream featuring the Royal Shakespeare Company. This was originally staged in Stratford-upon-Avon and the film version retains much of the theatrical feel of the original.
This film is a little off-putting, but that is what surrealism is all about, right? The entire film is a little boy’s dream. He (played by Osheen Jones) is shown throughout the film, watching, but unseen by the other actors. He lends another level of dreaminess to the proceedings.
The film is a little off-putting and surreal in many other ways. It’s artsy and strange. The colors are bright and garish. Costumes are odd. Sets are… yes, very strange. This is all quite definitely a dream, and not always a good one.
Puck is not a sweet imp, at all. He is creepy and dark. Bottom is not just a silly ass… he is a bit gross. The fairies Cobweb, Peaseblossom and Mustardseed, who I usually see cast as children or pretty girls, are old and kind of clownish (scary clowns, not funny clowns). Some of them play double roles as Mechanicals.
The Pelican Shakespeare edition that I am reading notes that actors often pull double duty in the Theseus/Oberon and Hippolyta/Titania roles, since they are parallel couples who never appear on stage together. This was true in the performance I attended last weekend. Royal Shakespeare Company actors Alex Jennings and Lindsay Duncan each take on the two roles in this film version. On stage, I think it’s easier for the audience to be fooled by different costumes and the distance from seat to stage (my eyes aren’t that great anyway!). But on film, you notice immediately that they are the same actors, transformed. I think it adds to the surreal feel of the film.
Much of the film takes place in the minimalistic “forest” set. It’s an empty stage with lightbulbs hanging down, oddly placed doors that appear and disappear, and strange colors. Titania sleeps in an upside-down umbrella. It is very artsy, but it works. I thought it was interesting.
Unlike the rest of the film, this version of Pyramus and Thisby is quite silly and slapstick and my kids enjoyed it. Which reminds me, there is a sex scene with Titania and Bottom that seems completely unnecessary and gross to me. Be aware of that if you have kids watching this. Also, be aware the whole movie is a bit darker than most productions of A Midsummer Night’s Dream… younger children might find it scary.
I would not say I loved this film, but I thought it was interesting and worth watching. It moves along quickly (just over 1.5 hours), and it’s never boring. It definitely gives an unusual, darker, spin to the comedy—a different way to look at things.
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