2 September 2011
A while ago Cindy and I, together with a couple of neighbours, began a long quest that who knows if we will finish. The quest is to watch every play of Shakespeare, in every reasonably available video version. It's been a lot of fun, although we aren't able to cover as much as we'd like as I'm so often traveling. We are doing them in rough chronological order, and have just finished with A Midsummer Night's Dream. 
We started, as usual, with the BBC production. In the early 80's the BBC did a cycle of all the plays of Shakespeare, which I treated to myself a couple of years ago. So far the productions have been very good, often our favorite version. As with the others we've seen, this one combined excellent actors (eg Helen Mirran as Titania, Robert Lyndsay as Lysander), with reasonable production values and cinematography. As usual with the BBC it makes a fine baseline to compare the others with.
After the BBC version, we like to go chronologically, which for Dream, means going next to Hollywood and Dieterle and Reinhardt's 1935 production. The cast included James Cagney as Bottom and Olivia de Havilland as Hermia. This is a striking piece of its time - exuding 1930's Hollywood. In particular the opening of Act II (where we shift to the forest) was a long period of Busby Berkeley-style special effects, with faeries dancing on spiral up a tree, shots of woodland creatures, and an orchestra of gnomes. The visuals rather were the point here, as the opening exchange between Oberon and Titania was cut to ribbons (probably a good job as Titania did not seem up to Shakespeare's dialog).
Overall the acting was reasonable rather than strong, not up to the other versions, although I thought Cagney's Bottom was very good. The most memorable part was 15 year old Mickey Rooney's Puck. It's a part which was on the verge of being irritating - but I felt fit in well with the story. Three of the five had children playing the fairies, but only this one also used a child for Puck.
Next along was to the 60's and the Royal Shakespeare Company for Peter Hall's production. My sister was visiting as we watched this one, and she remembered seeing it on the stage where Judy Dench's Titania made a big splash. The film copy for the DVD was pretty badly shot up, with lots of scratches and pops. But no scratch could hide the calibre of the actors - for example the three main female roles were handled by Judy Dench, Helen Mirran and Diana Rigg.
My sister, who can remember, said it was very much a 60s production. I'm not sure whether it was the quality of the print, the original design, or some later enhancement, but the colors were very odd. There was a fair bit of jump cutting for the faeries which I'm not sure really worked. On the whole, however, the acting line up was too good make this slip below the worthwhile line. I'd rank this as very similar to the BBC version: strong acting, reasonable visuals. And none of us had ever pictured Judy Dench in an outfit like that.
The next version brought us closer to modern days, Hoffman's Hollywood production from 1999. Like Hall's version this one is a parade of star actors: Kevin Kline (Bottom), Michelle Pfeiffer (Titania), Calista Flockhart (Helena), Christian Bale (Demetrius). The production also showed Hollywood money and took the production values and visuals up well past the other three. This one certainly looks like a movie. The danger point for something like this is that the acting won't be up to it, but here I think that other than Hermia, the parts were all strong. I particularly liked Rupert Everett's Oberon who had all the imperiousness that the part demands but added a splash of languor that was all the more compelling. Kline's Bottom was also outstanding, the production made him a bit of dandy adding a lot with visuals to the part. He and Pfeiffer were a memorable pairing.
So four versions down, and what's striking is their variety and their similarity. All go for a suitable woodland setting, which usually ends up with the lovers covered in mud. The production values varied with time and money, but they looked like roughly the same thing. But then we come back to the RSC for Noble's production (1996) and while Hoffman's was a step up in production, Noble's is a step sideways.
The most memorable staging here is the forest - a large blank stage with dangling light bulbs for trees and a few free-standing doorways to help stage the chaos of running around. On the whole we've really enjoyed those productions that have taken a non-literal approach to staging the plays and come up with startling productions, such as Julie Taymor's Titusand Baz Luhrmann's Romeo and Juliet. Noble's Dream didn't have the budget of these productions, but they used their budget really imaginatively. It isn't like a stage play that's been filmed, it definitely had a first rate movie direction, with lots of memorable visual sequences, yet it kept the feel of a stage play. That's a rare thing to pull off - in this it reminded me of Powell and Pressburger's Tales of Hoffmann.
Coupled to the wonderful production design was some really strong acting. The actors weren't as familiar to us as Hall's or Hoffmann's productions but overall I felt they were better, which I think was due to a combination of really good actors and the direction. There was a lot of very funny physical comedy, ranging from the subtle to near-slapstic.
I really enjoy watching multiple verions of a play like this. Every production has the single text to work from, that fixes what can be said, with only cuts and occasional rearrangements to play with. To that fixed text they then put their own vision into the staging and the way the actors perform the roles. In many ways I find the different way people approach Shakespeare to be every much as interesting as the plays themselves. These five versions present five visions, and while the Hall and BBC versions are quite similar, the other three head off in a different direction from that base.
In case you haven't guessed, the Noble version was our hands-down favorite, if nothing else because we like our Shakespeare served with a twist.
1: I'll be sharing some thoughts about five versions of Dream here, but we saw six. Of these, I won't talk about the Bergstrom production outside this paragraph. We found both the acting and directing to be amateurish in all the wrong ways. After a short time we found we could only watch it by watching a chapter until we could take no more then skipping to the next chapter. None of us wants to try watching it again.
2: A link with Titus was Osheen Jones playing a mute boy who acts as a constant audience to the drama. It's an odd addition, but it worked.