Some Enchanted Evening
On the screen, the Sweet Swan of Avon has not done all that well with the groundlings as he did and does on live stage. Shakespeare Wallah and Shakespeare in Love deservedly hooked the public but are not him, and it was togaed Brando that sold Julius Caesar tickets. Olivier’s Henry V delights critics and buffs but not the box office. Reinhardt, Welles, Polanski, Kurosawa, Branagh, Zeffirelli, Loncraine, Mankiewicz, Burge, Hoffman,Taymor, Luhrmann and others have had a stab, and there have been filmed stage performances and ballets from the Canon.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream confirms Julie Taymor as the most visible, experimental, controversial, and litigious of the crop. She had envisioned obscure Titus Andronicus as an examination of causes and effects of violence and for The Tempest went to an unusual Caliban and a unique Prospera. That latter playwright-magician-father/mother-forgiver was played by Helen Mirren, in attendance with the director and much of the cast for the MND New York première following an opening last year at the Toronto International Film Festival.
This new take on the “most phantasmagorical” “first undisputed masterpiece” of the unquestioned plays is not merely a filmed version of the director’s production at Brooklyn’s permanent Theatre for a New Alliance but, rather, a fusion of stage and screen. The live theater audience is from time to time vaguely discerned around the platform with its minimal props. With steadycam, Rodrigo Prieto’s cameras move all over, in and out, near and far, before post-production editing to combine the two mediums and add music by Taymor’s husband Elliot Goldenthal.
Therefore the innovative stage action itself, lighting -- the Globe had only 1595 daylight -- and mixed-era costuming may be cut into on-screen by trippy flowers blossoming and changing colors as they drip sight- or mind-altering elixirs. Dialogue is pretty much the original -- a silly “Screenplay: William Shakespeare” -- but some of the American accents are flat and not up to it in the hundred forty-four minutes culled from the estimated real-time four hours of four-plus centuries ago.
The Brooklynese of Max Casella’s Nick Bottom -- a part written for Shakespeare’s theater companion Will Kemp -- and slapstick of his comic band of five Rude Mechanicals, are crowd pleasers, as is David Harewood’s baritone Oberon, King of Shadows. They would be the high point of most shows, stage or film, but take unashamed second place to Kathryn Hunter’s Robin Goodfellow Puck, a must-see cunning contorting dancing rascal.
On June 24, all things are possible in the tale of fairy mixed with human, here imaginatively choreographed with seventeen sprite children as balancing Rude Elementals. There are four pairs of lovers who, one knows beforehand or senses at once, will turn out each with its right harmonious component partners and perhaps a tad tipsy.
As literary critics have long noted, the two sets of young lovers are the least interesting, though they have their moments. In the director’s often race- and gender-bending casting, Duke Theseus of Athens and his martially conquered now fiancée Amazon Queen Hippolyta (Roger Clark, Okwui Okpokwasili) are less frivolous, or just less young. But they are trumped by very black Oberon and his very fair Fairie Queen Titania (Tina Benko), whose lovers’ tiff leads to androgynous Puck’s commission, his/her error -- “fancy, engender’d in the eyes” -- and the whole’s good-natured romantic confusion.
All’s well that ends well, of course, not that there was any doubt of that. The visual marvel, in fact, outweighs the tale. Yet again, unfortunately, the Bard probably will not attract the general audience he did back then, and Taymor’s treat will go underappreciated.
(Released by Omniverse Vision and rated "PG" by MPAA.)