Reviewing Shakespeare is different to reviewing almost anything else. It’s like comparing a concert of a Mozart piece against a new rock album. The bard’s pieces are so well known, that you are reviewed not on the play but your interpretation – and let’s face it, nobody does the play straight and in a totally classical vein any more, since inevitably you will draw comparisons with productions of yesteryear, bore the audience that probably saw the play in 100 previous guises, and fail to draw anything new out of the text that has not already been said a million times.
Having reviewed a recent stage version, it seems only logical to apply the same logic to the all-star 1999 movie adaptation to see what works and what does not. And in truth, it’s a mixed bag. The cast is pretty excellent, albeit in some cases probably miscast, but if you start with Kevin Kline, Christian Bale, Rupert Everett, Michelle Pfeiffer, Calista Flockhart, Stanley Tucci, Dominic West, Sophie Marceau, Anna Friel, David Strathairn, Bernard Hill, Roger Rees and many more, how can you possibly go wrong?
Well, to begin with, setting the film in 19th Century Italy as a stylistic touch: yes, you get the wonderful scenery, the costumes, the architecture and much more besides, but what sense does it make when the play is chock full of references to Athens? Ah, but you do allow Puck to play around with bicycles for a laugh, and indeed for the lovers to cycle around the highly artificial woods and to finish their arguments with a dip in a conveniently-placed mud pool.
As a plot device, it wears thin and detracts slightly from the comedy of words and actions, which has been pared to the bone in some scenes. Done well, the Dream can be laugh-out-loud funny – here it doesn’t really score comedic brilliance until the play-within-a-play – and even then, cutting Quince’s prologue robs the movie of a high spot.
Where this version does score highly is on performances (as the director has every right to expect, given his stellar cast) and charm. If I have a negative on the acting, it’s with American accents, though that is my personal gripe. The words left in are interpreted and played for the most part beautifully – though you do wonder about airtime given to some stars, notably Mr Kline. Was he contracted to appear on screen for a certain number of minutes? His dress certainly does not suggest a humble weaver, even if his face is a picture!.
Lovers notwithstanding, air time is given extensively to Rupert Everett’s laconic Oberon (slightly lacking in the all-consuming jealousy department) and Stanley Tucci’s energetic but overly-cerebral Puck, both of whom pale in comparison with Michelle Pfeiffer’s ravishing Titania. Theseus and Hippolyta are given heavily-diminished roles, and the threat of Hermia’s being killed or being cloistered as a barren sister seem to appear as a whim rather than a tangible threat. I did feel sorry for Bernard Hill’s Egeus, all revved up with no place to go, as the song has it – his teeth-spitting anger seems to have been lost in the confusion.
However, my award for the best cameo goes to the inestimable John Sessions, playing “master of mirth” Philostrate. His face is even more of a picture than Mr Kline’s – a much underestimated actor and performer, I think Sessions should be given licence to display his full panoply of talents on the big screen.
Don’t get me wrong – this is an entertaining fare but seems mostly Shakespeare-light. Probably what director Michael Hoffman was aiming for, though it seems perverse to name the movie “William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” when in reality it’s “Michael Hoffman’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”