It is hard to know where to start with Russell T. Davies’s adaptation of the Shakespearean comedy, but at times it did feel more like a comedy of errors. Although to be fair, probably the funniest moment did involve the actual Comedy of Errors.
This adaptation of the play sees two couples fleeing a modern-day Athens, run by the cruel Theseus (John Hannah) depicted as a fascist dictator. In the forest around Athens, the king of the fairies Oberon (Nonso Anozie) sends out servant Puck (Hiran Abeysekera) to find a magic flower, the drops from which tricks its victims into falling in love with the first thing they see, including the fairy queen Titania (Maxine Peake). Not only does this mean that the two couple gets caught up in each other’s romances, but a troupe of players, preparing a play for Theseus also fall victim, when one of their number, Bottom (Matt Lucas), is turned by Puck into an ass, whom Titania falls for.
While I enjoyed Lucas’s comic performance, as well as the more scary performance by Anozie as Oberon, overall it felt a bit of a let-down, and I thought that the CGI was used too much. It is also save to say that this is not a play for purists. While I did not mind at all the part of Quince being played by a woman (Elaine Page), some deviations did seem to go a bit too far. For example one of the characters dies in this version which doesn’t happen in the play. Also while I can understand Davies writing in a gay kiss I don’t see why it was needed, especially as how you already have some gay moments in the show when the two men in the couples, Lysander and Demetrius (Matthew Tennyson and Paapa Essiedu) are tricked into falling for each other, to the annoyance of their lovers Hermia and Helena (Prisca Bakare and Kate Kennedy). You just think it would be better to watch a gay kiss in which the two guys involved are doing it because they really love each other, rather than being tricked into doing it by a mythological creature. The end song-and-dance meanwhile was just naff.
However, the saddest thing about this show was that the funniest things in it were not the stuff that was written by Shakespeare, but by Davies. For example, Bottom goes into a pub he bangs the side of a TV to show a programme called The Comedy of Errors, whose theme tune is the one from You’ve Been Framed!. You even manage to get a laugh out of Lucas making a Little Britain reference.
I don’t think though the problem is the adaptation itself, or the cast or the way the programme is made, but because it is lacking one thing: the sound of laughter. A Midsummer Night’s Dream, like all of Shakespeare’s plays, are designed to be performed in front of a live audience. You are meant to hear people laughing at the jokes. The funniest bit of the play that is actually by Shakespeare is when Quince and Bottom’s play, with a cast that includes Richard Wilson, Bernard Cribbins, Javone Prince and Fisayo Akinade, is performed in a way that is so bad its good. In this scene, the players perform in front of a live audience, and we hear their laughter, which the audience at home can join in.
If this production does serve at least one decent purpose, it is that sometimes a live audience is a good thing. I hate these snooty TV critics who think that any sitcom that features people laughing must be using canned laughter. Sometimes audience laughter is a good thing. It is something that we can all join in with together. There is nothing wrong with that.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream is available on the BBC iPlayer.