DVD Review: A Midsummer Night’s Dream (RSC 1996)

“Thou art translated”

Perhaps at the time, this 1996 RSC adaptation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream by Adrian Noble was revolutionary in the way it reconceives the action of Shakespeare’s play, but to today’s eyes or at least mine in particular, it now feels rather hokey and dated. I suspect as well that something may have been lost in the translation from stage to screen as too often, the abiding vibe of this production was closer to a cheap music video.

It didn’t help that I disliked the opening conceit, and one that was carried through the whole show, of this being a figment of a young boy’s imagination, inspired by a book he’s reading. I could have lived with it had it just been at the beginning but the boy is a constant presence, we’re forever following his movements as we shift from scene to scene, but he has no real role in the show, no interaction with the characters and so it just becomes this clumsy device that continually rears its head.

And the general air of the production feels garishly coloured and awkwardly stagey in its affected movement. The ensemble frequently call to mind Pan’s People gone wrong in their bizarre costumes; the dreamlike limbo space seemed to work against the play for me, I just didn’t like the lack of sense of place that it engendered though the lightbulbs for the forests were well done and there was great comic business with the doors. And that the graphic work – those bubbles… – now looks dated is a simply inescapable problem.

Criticisms aside, I did enjoy the marked doubling between the court and fairyland, not just as expected with Hippolyta / Titania and Theseus / Oberon but also with the Rude Mechanicals also appearing as the fairies that attend to Bottom. Lindsay Duncan and Alex Jennings brought their customary professionalism to bear with solid performances, and the lovers were good though not particularly distinguished – Monica Dolan’s Hermia probably emerging as my favourite, just ahead of Daniel Evans (with hair!) as Lysander. Desmond Barrit’s Bottom is good fun and surprisingly lewd, it is clear that the transformation into an ass affected all parts of his body!, and Finbar Lynch (credited as Barry here…) makes an excellent Puck.

As I said, I imagine this was a production that worked wonders on the stage, hence filming it for posterity, but I can’t believe that this is a good representation of it, as despite the relative strength of some of the lead performances, it still made for quite a patience-testing watch, even with its relatively short running time.


2 thoughts on “DVD Review: A Midsummer Night’s Dream (RSC 1996)

  1. I'm sure the stage production itself would look dated now as well, but I saw this on stage twice (both with Toby Stephens as Lysander and then when Daniel Evans and his hair replaced him) and saw the filmed version not long after it was made, so I remember that the main problems are specific to the film adaptation – I remember it looked cheap and dated pretty much immediately. The little kid wasn't part of the stage production, which is probably why he's not properly integrated in this. Ditto the bubbles, I think they must have been an attempt to replicate the effect of the umbrellas that were the main visual gimmick in the stage version.

  2. You were seeing things twice even back then…? 😉
    I could have lived with the little boy framing device if they'd left it to the beginning and end, but having him there throughout was just wrong. And to find it was specially added for the film…how random!

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