A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Peter Hall, 1968)

There’s one thing I particularly like about watching old films, and that’s the credits. Complete, slow enough to read, and at the beginning so we know who’s who to start with. And with this cast, there’s a lot of who’s who to remember.

To name only the highlights, we’ve got Judi Dench (M) as Titania; Helen Mirren (Queen Elizabeth I and II) as Hermia; Diana Rigg (Emma Peel) as Helena; Ian Richardson (Francis Urquhart) as Oberon; David Warner (Lord Downey) as Lysander; and Ian Holm (Bilbo Baggins) as Puck.

Adaptations of this play are usually set in some fantastical fairyland studio set, a glittering or louring magical wood, some evocation of the Wild Wood, the Forest Primaeval. This one isn’t; it’s filmed in a forest. An ordinary, un-tarted-up English forest, with an ordinary English village & country house near it. For me, that only increases its power: it’s a real place, like hundreds I’ve walked through, and that makes it a much rawer and less mediated experience. The film has the same undramatic magic as the English woodlands do.

The fairies, too, display a similar sort of wonderful undramatic magic. They appear and disappear without a fuss—did they blink out of existence, or were they moving too fast to see? Just where did they appear from while we glanced away? When Bottom tries to leave the forest (Out of this wood do not desire to go!), he runs every which way, but Titania is always in front of him, and in Act II, Scene 1 (if you want to check the scenes against the text, there’s a good and very usable copy here) Titania’s court stream in through flickers and jump-cuts like a Wild Hunt, or like a bacchanal riot—or like dozens of children in the woods at night, because that’s what they are. It’s often traditional to cast children as the fairies, for whatever allegedly child-like qualities you want to invoke, but it’s rare to see them actually behaving like real children, rather than a director’s child-like fairy ideal. Clare Dench, as the first fairy we see, is utterly enchanting as she stamps in a pond (drenching Puck) and listens to the stories he spins to make her laugh, and when Titania gathers her court around her to sing her to sleep she behaves more like an indulgent and adoring mother than an imperious queen. In fact, this episode reminded me strongly of Neverland, with Titania playing Wendy and the brave but hopelessly incompetent Cobweb standing guard while she sleeps. When Oberon goes to dose Titania with his magical herb, a minion distracts Cobweb with a branch upside the head; it makes a very comedic ‘clunk!’ sound. In fact, Puck seems to induce sound effects and similar cartoon tropes everywhere he goes, dashing off with a ‘whoosh!’ and returning panting like a labrador, and when he leads the four lovers around in the night and fog they become hopelessly infected with cartoonishness. (There’s textual evidence for it, mind you: Those things best please me that befall preposterously.) Holm’s an amazing non-verbal actor, and his bounding, anarchic, good-hearted Puck is a delight to watch. Puck is the sort of character it’s hard not to play to extremes, because he just works so well that way, but Holm shows a lot of restraint both in his mischief—mazing and wearying Lysander and Demetrius, but without bouncing around or showing off any Weird Shit—and his kindness, in telling tales for a fairy child, and putting Helena and Hermia to sleep with a kiss on the cheek.

Ian Richardson makes a good Oberon, clearly very manly in his body language, but not showing any performative masculinity at all. Titania shows an honest, uncomplicated sensuality, but (despite spending the entire film dressed in a half-dozen leaves) comes over as protective and motherly rather than at all sexual. Her wonderful speech in II.1 (ll.450-486) is strongly felt, passionate but not fierce, and for every moment of it she has her eyes fixed either on Oberon or to camera. There’s a lot of fourth-wall-breaking in this film; practically every soliloquy is delivered straight to us. Oberon, in an interesting contrast, spends most of his lines gazing off into the middle distance while green leaves wave behind him. Unlike many versions of this couple, there’s clearly real and genuine affection between them. I’m not sure how that chimes with Oberon slipping her a roofie and getting her screwed by a mortal, and she cries real tears when he shows her that her dream did happen after all, but hey. I’ve seen weirder relationships, and their kink is not my kink. Their subsequent dance is really sweet, a montage of kisses and hands sliding over hands, and they show visible affection in the final scene. When they’re together, there’s nothing courtly going on; this is a family, and it shows.

So much for the fairies; now, the mortals, and lord! what fools these mortals be.

Mirren makes an adorable, lively, giggling, gambolling, bouncing Helena, teasing Lysander when he tries to repudiate his love for her, and only switching to fury when they make fun of her height. Rigg’s Helena is quite a contrast, and not just because this film reverses the usual short-brunette/tall-blonde colour-matching. They play off each other really well, and you can quite believe that they spent their childhoods together. Warner’s Lysander, on the other hand, is simultaneously threatening and sleazy, flirting enough with Helena that his later declaration of love doesn’t surprise her; Demetrius is threatening and gormless. Theseus, on the other hand, is sleek and dark, and incapable of saying anything without making it sound extremely sinister, to the point where I had to double-check that he wasn’t played by Anthony Ainley or Roger Delgado. (He even has the little beard. He wasn’t, of course, but Michael Jayston, who plays Demetrius, was the Valeyard. Just so you know.)

The mechanicals are classic British working class, ranging from nice but thick (Snout) to Quince’s twinkle-eyed grandfatherly wide-boy, who reminds me of several tradesmen I’ve known, and Bottom’s lovable rogue, forever acting out to impress his mates. I can’t find a great deal to say about the mechanicals; they do the job well, and it’s a pleasure to watch, but there are no surprises. I’m always a bit irked by the play’s portrayal of some of the working classes as thick, but that’s 1960s Britain for you. Progressive in patches.

The actors certainly got realistically dishevelled after their time in the woods, with messy hair and huge splotches of real mud; this is not Hollywood dirt! The costuming was fairly eclectic, based on unremarkable 1960s clothing, but with a few touches to make it look Elizabethan (swords, cloaks), Athenian (Theseus’s natty wrinkled-polycotton-sheet and doily ensemble, and Hermia’s sandals) and generically warlike (Hippolyta’s leather minidress and boots). Bottom’s ass’s head is a typical product of fine British television engineering, from the same era that produced Basil Brush. The only other item that’s worth much of a mention is Lysander’s flowered shirt, and that can safely be classed under “eldritch abomination”. Let us never speak of it again.

Overall, this is a wonderful film, and I’m delighted to have had this opportunity to review it for you all! The only thing I’d take issue with is the ending. Holm’s delivery of Puck’s final speech really surprised me; it’s very fast and enthusiastic, as though Hall wanted to end the play on an emotional upbeat. I think I can see his reasoning, but I’m not convinced that was the right way to do it. Any thoughts, O my friends and fellow appreciators?

4 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Elly
    Jun 22, 2011 @ 07:18:52

    I found the wood genuinely threatening, which was interesting (and, as you say, came across just because it’s a real English wood, at night, with all the night-noises that entails). Hermia’s terror at waking up and finding herself alone was convincing and didn’t make her come across as remotely cowardly. First time that speech has ever worked for me!

    I’d note that Quince wasn’t just a wide-boy to my eyes – he was *delightfully* theatrical-camp. Classic camp amateur actor/director. I kept expecting him to say “luvvie” after every sentence. I’m pretty sure he was in love with Bottom.

    I’d also like to note that I want to take Mirren’s Hermia home and keep her. Total poppet.🙂 And that they didn’t play down the Hermia/Helena slash, for which Yay.

    Reply

  2. kvtaylor
    Jun 22, 2011 @ 13:42:19

    I totally agree with this whole thing. I think I mentioned to you that I’d never seen it before your recommendation, and oh my god, it is so a cut above. The interpretation is delightful on all accounts. The little fairies were absolutely enchanting, too.

    I also agree about Puck’s finish, though. Up to that point I’d been so into it, and then he just motored through it like a chlorophyll producing coke fiend. It kind of left me blinking like, “buh?” I definitely prefer it a little more… I don’t know. There’s something sort of menacing, in a fae way, about that bit that I adore so much, and was totally gone from it here.

    But hey, the joy of watching people interpret Shakespeare is always a strange one.

    Reply

  3. Trackback: Fae Awareness: The End and Index « Fae Awareness Month
  4. Philip
    Feb 26, 2012 @ 06:03:29

    Interesting review, Sam. If you’re in England, may I ask – have you actually got a DVD of this film? The only copies I can find are US imports, not playable in the UK.

    Reply

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