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The Drugs DO Work. The 1981 BBC “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”

August 17, 2017


Director, Elijah Moshinsky, really does like his seventeenth-century Dutch interiors.  You can also see them in his All’s Well that Ends Well and Cymbeline.  Moshinsky’s Athenian palace of King Theseus has been designed by Vermeer and belongs securely in Northern Europe.  The stiffness, precision and clarity of this court is evoked as well by the sound of a clock ticking very obtrusively for much of the first act.   Nowhere feels less like Greece than this setting – a deliberate strategic staging which works rather effectively in the context of any production that wants a really sharp distinction between waking reality and dreamy fantasy.

As the production moves out into the forest, Vermeer disappears and is replaced by a mixture of Rubens and Rembrandt.   If you’re a fan of luxuriant drapery and the play of very limited and strategic light upon diaphanous fabrics, then there’s much for you to enjoy about this staging without you even having to listen to actors talk.

Nigel Davenport did gravelly-voiced authority figures with some assurance.  From the outset of the play we are reminded that the Royal Marriage is a forced marriage – and that the bride, played with exquisite unease by Estelle Kohler, is also a Prisoner of War.  In this Dutch-looking Athens, patriarchy rules supreme.

There are some familiar faces among the rude mechanicals, faces that evoke a sense of warmth and affection on sight.   Geoffrey Palmer, past master of world-weary exasperation, has surely appeared in more BBC comedies than any other human, making the face of Geoffrey Palmer perhaps the most cosily familiar face on the planet.  As he endeavours to keep Bottom in check we connect with an authentic passion for his new found craft of playwriting.  The wonderful Don Estelle is Starveling, which has the effect of injecting something rather special into Pyramus and Thisbe – his own superb singing voice – which we all know from It Ain’t Half Hot Mum.  I’ve always had a bit of a problem with the aristocratic sneering that punctuates this performance and Moshinsky tones down the snarkiness considerably.  Any performance where Don Estelle gets to sing cannot, after all, be all bad – and the Flute/Thisbe death scene is a similarly straight-faced affair.  I don’t think I’ve seen John Fowler in anything else other than as “Boy” in the BBC Henry V.

Brian Glover was born to play Bottom.  His immense bulk and inescapable presence is always accompanied by a kind of innocence and benevolent intent.  I was lucky enough to see Brian Glover play God in Tony Harrison’s highly immersive Mysteries at the NT.  Part of me still thinks that Brian Glover is God – or that God is Brian Glover – or hopes that he is.  Well, I suppose I will eventually find out.  The love scenes between Brian Glover and Helen Mirren seem remarkably natural and unaffected.  Above all, it is the nonchalance with which Glover’s Bottom adapts to his new situation that appeals.

The four lovers in the forest have a terrible time of it, on the whole.

Robert Lyndsay surely appeared in more of these BBC Shakespeare productions than anyone else?  He plays Lysander as something of a wet fish, a rather shy and soppy youth who shows few signs of being able to think past his own amorous clichês.  Disturbingly, he appears liberated by his love drug, and addresses Helena with far more energy and enthusiasm than he’d ever shown towards Hermia.  Indeed, his sober and supposedly pure love for Hermia seems more fake than his chemically induced state of passion for Helena.  Nicky Henson (remember him as the medallion-man antagonist of Basil Fawlty?) has a very different task since Demetrius is quick-tempered and irrational from the beginning.  But it’s Pippa Guard and Cherith Mellor who really shine, as they are various bedraggled and dunked.  They are the ones who have to bear with and survive the madness of their druggy menfolk.  They are the sober ones at the party – if you like – the designated drivers.

Titania is not the hardest role Helen Mirren has ever had to play.   (See her also enjoy starring roles in the BBC As You Like It and Cymbeline.)  The “Indian boy”, incidentally, is only a toddler, which de-sexualises the contest between her and Peter McEnery’s Oberon considerably.  The most terrifying thing is how quickly she recovers from the shock of seeing an ass’s head (the word “donkey” was not known until the later eighteenth-century oddly enough) on the pillow next to her.  “What was I drinking last night?”

Ah me, A Midsummer Night’s Dream is, after all, the most beautiful play ever written about massive hallucinatory drug taking and sex with a donkey.

And then there’s Phil Daniels as Puck, stripped to the waist like Sid Vicious on the 1978 Sex Pistols’ US tour, but with a vestigial ruff around his neck – a punk Elizabethan – perhaps a refugee from the set of Derek Jarman’s Jubilee (1977).  Daniels has been instructed to play up the malice implicit in Robin Goodfellow’s mischief.   Here is a practical joker you should insure yourself against.  I’d say lock your doors against him, but it would be of little use.

My main main issue here is the music.  Stephen Oliver’s.   There is too much of it and it’s too tasteful and “appropriate”.  I don’t mind musical interludes and I certainly don’t mind musicians on stage (or onscreen), but what I can’t stand is music which merely amplifies a conventional or familiar “tone”.  If music is to be superimposed over the sound of an actor speaking, then that music has to offer some sort of startling, original and downright unexpected commentary on the words being spoken.  Otherwise, the lily is being gilded and syrup is being poured on ice cream.  The verse is being cloyed.  In this production, there’s a particular problem with the fairy speeches, which are scored in a way that can’t help but suggest a lack of confidence – a lack of confidence in the power of the poetry and/or a lack of confidence in whoever is charged with reciting the poetry.

Every production of this play reminds me of what a bastard Oberon is.  Someone who spikes their partner’s drink so as to dupe them into having sex with a donkey just to win an argument is an abusive sex criminal and should go to prison for ever – immortal though they be.

Peter McEnery plays Oberon in a big shirt and with very long dank looking hair – an amphibious creature who eschews all mortal markers of regality.

The highlight of the play I think is Helena’s pleading speech to Hermia, evoking the truest, longest, and least drugged up love in the play – the lifelong passionate friendship of two old schoolfriends.  Yes, Cherith Mellor, in a scene blessedly free of any musical accompaniment, gives the most loving speech of the night, a speech devoted to willed co-dependence and tied and tested comradeship.

                                                … is it all forgot?
All school-days’ friendship, childhood innocence?
We, Hermia, like two artificial gods,
Have with our needles created both one flower,
Both on one sampler, sitting on one cushion,
Both warbling of one song, both in one key,
As if our hands, our sides, voices and minds,
Had been incorporate. So we grow together,
Like to a double cherry, seeming parted,
But yet an union in partition;
Two lovely berries moulded on one stem;
So, with two seeming bodies, but one heart;
Two of the first, like coats in heraldry,
Due but to one and crowned with one crest.
And will you rent our ancient love asunder,
To join with men in scorning your poor friend?

 There is, at the end of the night, no love as important as the love of Helena for Hermia a  And, one hopes, vice versa.  And there’s nothing more important than this love’s preservation.

I’ve written about some other of these 1978-1984 BBC Shakespeare productions.

Here’s Julius Caesar:

King John:

Here’s Richard II:

The BBC Richard III could not be more unlike the BBC Richard II…

Here is Henry VI Part III

Henry VI. Part Two:

Henry VI, Part One:

Here’s my review of the BBC Henry V:

Here are a few more blogs musing on this old BBC project…

BBC Henry IV, Part TWO:

But here’s my review of the BBC Henry IV Part ONE:

And the BBC Antony and Cleopatra:

And the Cymbeline:

Not to mention a somber but intensely homoerotic Coriolanus:

Here’s Comedy of Errors:

And… All’s Well That End’s Well:

Helen Mirren in the BBC As You Like It:


of these 1978-1984 BBC Shakespeares:

Like Julius Caesar:




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