This is a film of a live production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream that Julie Taymor directed in Brooklyn in 2014. I love Taymor’s movies, and although this is a live production, it’s filmed beautifully. There are shots that are clearly composed for the camera, although the positioning of the actors must have made sense to the live audience too. Anyway, this is Taymor’s third Shakespeare film, but while I found it incredibly gorgeous and fun, it’s probably my least favorite of the three on a first viewing.
As you would expect from a Taymor film, the production design is amazing. The costumes are great particularly for Titania and Oberon, who are coded silver and gold respectively. (Oberon is played by the one actor I recognized: David Harewood, who plays the Martian Manhunter on the TV series Supergirl.) The practical stage effects are actually quite elaborate, with a very effective use of light projected on backdrops, props, and characters to give a magical feeling of transformation to every object on stage. The donkey mask that Bottom wears has a prosthetic mouth at the end of the muzzle that appears to mimic the actor’s mouth movements as he speaks. Very uncanny looking.
I also loved some of the conceptual effects, such as having it all start out as Puck’s dream, although I wasn’t sure why that frame was dropped, without Puck waking up in the end before giving his apology for the offenses against reason the play/dream present. It’s possible this was intentional and that Taymor wants us to leave the theater thinking that we are still in the middle of a dream that has no end. Certainly some of the characters wonder whether they are awake or still dreaming as they exit the stage.
I’m not sure how many times I’ve read and/or seen A Midsummer Night’s Dream, but I’m surprised how much stuff I noticed for the first time in this version. It probably doesn’t speak well of my competence to comment on the play, but this was the first time I realized that Demetrius is the only mortal still under a fairy love spell at the end of the play. Leaves you wondering which of the three mortal couples in the end will endure: the two who love each other of their own free will or the one in which one of the pair is magically compelled to love the other? I also had never caught that part of the conflict between Oberon and Titania that drives the action of the play is that she is infatuated with Theseus and Oberon with Hippolyte. Does the marriage of Theseus and Hippolyte in the end mean that they are now safe from the jealousies of their fairy paramours?
So why did I find this the least interesting of Taymor’s three Shakespeare films? Frankly it’s probably because like a lot of moderns, I find his comedies harder to appreciate than his tragedies, because the jokes often don’t make sense to me. Taymor opts for a fairly slapstick approach to the comedy, which is a common strategy for coping with the fact that Shakespeare’s jokes are often incomprehensible to modern audiences without a lot of explanatory footnotes. But I honestly prefer the approach in the 1999 film version, with Kevin Kline playing a world-weary Bottom and the silly play of the mechanicals actually capturing a real sense of tragedy that surprises everyone, including the players themselves. However, I should say I was out of synch with the rest of the sold out house I saw this with at the SIFF Film Center, who frequently laughed and hooted at the capering, pratfalls, and pillow fights on screen.
So I guess it was kind of a mixed bag for me. It’s 148 minutes long, so my butt was tired by the end. But the beautiful visuals kept me going through sore butt syndrome. I’m sure I’ll never forget the sequence of swelling flowers that precedes the consummation of the affair between Titania and Bottom. It was a surprisingly lush, overt burst of eroticism in the midst of a raucous comedy. Weed wide enough to wrap an ass in.