There were four major DVDs of Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”: The 1935 Hollywood version with Dick Powell and James Cagney, the 1968 made-for-television version with Judi Dench and Diana Rigg, the 1981 entry in the BBC Shakespeare series, and the 1999 film version with Kevin Kline and Michelle Pfeiffer.
Now there is a fifth DVD from Kultur of a 2013 production given at Shakespeare’s Globe that could have been the best. But for some reason Artistic and Stage Director Dominic Dromgoole has decided that beautiful poetry beautifully read is not what modern audiences want. For example, I want you, if possible, to listen to Oberon’s’ passage “I know a bank where the wild thyme blows” read by Victor Jury (1935) and Ian Richardson (1968) and then compare them to the angry shouting of John Light, who was directed to make the lines sound as commonplace as possible.
Indeed, Michelle Terry, his Titania, is also angry throughout her scene with Light; and again much or all of the poetry is lost. Since these leads double as Duke Theseus and Hippolyta, Terry is still defiant towards her mate, except that as Hippolyta, she seems to enjoy annoying Theseus. It is only in their closing lines as Oberon and Titania that they finally calm down and give a slow reading to describe the witching hour and bless the house.
The two sets of lovers—Sarah MacRae (Helena), Olivia Ross (Hermia), Joshua Silver (Demetrius), and Luke Thompson (Lysander)—know what they are about, when the Director lets them respect the script.
The rude mechanicals are given far too much silly business and even more ad libs. Whenever possible, they break into a clog dance (once even on grass!). Probably having James Cagney’s over-the-top histrionics in mind, Pearce Quigley is directed to read Bottom’s lines in the most casual way. It is different and somehow it works. But during the actual performance of “Pyramus and Thisby,” he is allowed to utter an obscenity; Fergal McElherron as Peter Quince is given far too many extra lines, and indeed the whole sequence is twice as long as it should be.
There is one dirty joke that only a Shakespeare scholar will get. When the Wall realizes there is no hole through which the separated lovers can kiss, he punches one right in front of his crotch. So when Thisby declaims, “My cherry lips have often kissed thy stones,” the original audience must have rolled in the aisles. (Oh, if you don’t get the joke, look up what “stones” meant in bawdy Elizabethan.)
So while this is certainly the liveliest of all the versions, it loses much of the poetry and adds too much “humor” to the script. Shakespeare does not need help.
The running time is 172 minutes and there are no subtitles.