Today it is difficult to imagine a production in which Robert Lindsay, Helen Mirren, Phil Daniels and Geoffrey Palmer all the share the limelight; however thirty years ago the BBC treated us to a production of arguably Shakespeare’s most magical play with an equally spellbinding cast. Educational online resource, Ambrose has recently added the entire collection of BBC Shakespeare plays first released in the 1980s, so at PlayShakespeare.com we felt it would only be fitting to look back on these works, to see how time has treated them and whether they are still accessible for a modern audience. This starry production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream is directed by Elijah Moshinsky and released in 1981.
Initially I was disappointed by the consistency with which the production was so darkly lit, feeling it lacked imagination and the magical autumnal glow that is a vital part of the Dream for me. Thankfully the white bridal costuming worn by all the prominent females gives the production a much needed lightness. From the opening act I wanted to be entranced by an “other worldliness” but was instead faced with a rather staid and colourless backdrop of the Athenian kingdom. Sisters Helena and Hermia (Cherith Mellor and Pippa Guard, respectively) are equally unlikeable in this first act where the production craves the warmth that will thankfully be provided by Palmer, Mirren and co. later on: Helena’s ugly anger and frustration only serves to enhance her lack of beauty in comparison to the fair Hermia, who despite her looks appears to lack any spirit of character at this early stage. Quite why she is so in demand with Lysander and Demetrius is hard to decipher at times.
Fortunately, this production really takes off once transported to fairyland, and the characters develop and the mystery and magic I had been craving. Phil Daniels plays a likeable Puck who the viewer grows to trust as the play progresses whilst at the same time making for an interesting fairy/cockney hybrid. He is spritely, energetic and captures the essence of fairyland in contrast to the sedate and uninspiring atmosphere present in the Athenian lifestyle.
Praise must be given to Helen Mirren (whenever is it not?) for her role as Titania. She brings much needed softness and femininity to the role that is lacking so in Helena and Hermia, who at times are brash, loud and unappealing. Mirren, on the other hand, positively glows in her role as fairy Queen. I found the moment where she falls in love with Bottom, disguised as an ass, hilariously funny as she glows with the radiance of a woman truly in love in a way I have seen no other actress play the role. I believed every perfectly articulated word she spoke, since she gives each word sufficient weight but also a fairy daintiness.
The action in fairyland is interspersed with visits to the hapless group of labourers, led capably by Geoffrey Palmer in the role of Quince. They are an endearing bunch but I found most hilarity came from the idea of Palmer playing a poor actor. Their muddled performance of Pyramus and Thisbe is another highlight of the production as they entertain the guests at Theseus’ wedding. The performance is everything a “bad” play should be, ill-rehearsed, unbelievable and executed by the hopelessly incapable. The earlier glimpse into their rehearsal efforts also make the for an amusing scene.
On reflection, my harsh initial thoughts on this 1981 production of the Dream were happily to be discounted for the sheer joy provided by the likes of Mirren and Palmer who can always be trusted to add colour and interest to what I still think to be a slightly unimaginative set up for what is one of Shakespeare’s most magical plays. The Dream has so much scope for creativity in the staging that this production comes off at times a little bland but is, however, saved by the mystery and magic of fairy land, which captures the sense of liberation at the play’s heart.