A Midsummer Night’s Dream
1999: Michael Hoffman
This recent entry into the fray received mixed notices from both the Shakespeare community and from the press in general, and it is bound to stir up controversy for some time to come. It inexplicably sets the play around the turn of the century in Italy — a point that it goes out of its way to belabor in a written note at the beginning of the play — and fills it with bicycles, bloomers, and extravagant displays of fin-de-siecle haute cuisine. Nevertheless, it manages to achieve a remarkable visual power, and after a fairly short time, the cultural transposition is more or less acceptable — at no point does it eclipse the story (as happens in some of the other transposed Shakespeare plays like McKellan’s Richard III or Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet). At a couple of points the most arbitrary parts of the conceit become arrestingly beautiful and take a rather charming place in the story: there is one completely unanticipated piece involving a phonograph.
It is without a doubt the most artistically lavish production, with an august aristocratic villa and a picturesque Italian town for “Athens” and lush woodland settings for the rest. The art direction exhibits a control of imagery that is almost unprecedented, and a receptive viewer will find that it enriches the play considerably, when it is not actively distracting. Titania and Oberon’s first confrontation is a cinematic set-piece worthy of study all by itself. Titania’s awe-inspiring retinue includes an evocative range of fantastical beings from various mythologies from around the world: Janus-headed figures, sphinxes, and — in an inspired touch, an Indian changeling boy who is blue (an otherwise unelaborated reference to the conventional iconography of Krishna).
The best of its performances work well. Kevin Kline is remarkably effective as Bottom, neither as ridiculous nor as contemptible as most, but having a certain melancholy tonality; his troupe of workman-players is realized with an unsurpassed charm and finesse. Stanley Tucci as Puck steals almost every scene he’s in.
Not all the casting is equally successful. Rupert Everett presents a nerveless and languid Oberon against Michelle Pfeiffer’s far more engaging (but still flatly middle-American) Titania. Some may find Calista Flockhart a bit difficult to believe as Helena; never having seen her as Ally McBeal I don’t have that imagery to purge, but persuading myself that she is very tall is a bit of a problem.
Several bold interpretive moves keep the play alive even for the viewer who has seen it one time too many — particularly the novel handling of the Pyramus and Thisbe play-within-a-play, and Bottom’s final wistful recollection of his strange dream. They tend to enhance the sense of the whole without really attacking or subverting it aggressively — a delightful contrast to the belligerent and heavy-handed anarchism of Luhrman’s Romeo + Juliet.
There is some restrained depiction of nudity in the film, and implicit sexual activity, but far less gratuitous than what shows up in the Adrian Noble version.
Changeling Boy: Chomoke Bhuiyan
Cobweb: Annalisa Cordone
Demetrius: Christian Bale
Egeus: Bernard Hill
Francis Flute: Sam Rockwell
Hard-Eye Fairy: Deirdre Harrison
Helena: Calista Flockhart
Hermia: Anna Friel
Hippolyta: Sophie Marceau
Lysander: Dominic West
Master Antonio: Valerio Isidori
Moth: Solena Nocentini
Mustardseed: Paola Pessot
Nick Bottom: Kevin Kline
Oberon: Rupert Everett
Peaseblossom: Flaminia Fegarotti
Peter Quince: Roger Rees
Philostrate: John Sessions
Puck (Robin Goodfellow): Stanley Tucci
Robin Starveling: Max Wright
Snug: Gregory Jbara
Theseus: David Strathairn
Titania: Michelle Pfeiffer
Tom Snout: Bill Irwin