TV There's a rather brilliant example of someone being put in their place in the Q&A with Russell T Davies and Maxine Peake conducted by Clemency Burton-Hill at the Hay festival ahead of last night's broadcast of A Midsummer Night's Dream on BBC One (available here). Early in the session, Russell repeated the explanation for some of the cuts to the text he's made for this new adaptation, specifically the references by the female lovers Helena and Hermia to killing themselves or being killed should they not receive the love affair they want. It's the Elizabethan equivalent of saying, "I'd just die if ..." in modern parlance but given the context of the production and who some of the target audience were, Davies decided that it was best to leave it out, because he was putting his name to it and he wouldn't put his name to something which jokes about women's suicide.
Near the end of the session an older woman pipes up: "You've taken out references to women killing themselves for love, so what's your ending to Romeo and Juliet?" There are laughs in the audience, quite a lot of the audience actually, except then Russell does an interesting thing. He doesn't laugh. The attitude he selects is furious, or at least furious within this otherwise polite event: "I find that question really trite, because I did a really serious thing in taking those lines out because the play is not about suicide. That's a fleeting referential ..." he interrupts himself so he can address the audience member directly then, "... they're fleeting, they're just character beats, they're not important, they don't change the plot, they don't become the plot, they're not important in any place. Romeo and Juliet is entirely about that moment and therefore of course I'd keep that the same and I'm disappointed in the question frankly because I think I did a very proper thing and you made light of it."
Just before the broadcast, I tweeted about how I'm a bit of a Shakespeare purist, about how the text is all and if you don't have the text, you don't have the play and that to cut it would be cultural vandalism. If you're cutting because you think by removing text and/or changing words you're making it accessible, you're cheating because you don't have the talent to take the text as is and make it as readable and understandable as it can be, as it was presumably four hundred years ago and can be with the right director, good cast in a decent venue. I also added that it's absolutely fine if what you're producing is an adaptation, notably if you're shifting the text out of its source context and into a different arena. As Russell himself says elsewhere in the Q&A, however nice the poetry, there's no point within a dynamic television adaptation of having long descriptions of actions or introductions designed for the Globe's bare stage if you can simply show it.
Which is why, despite my purism, I agree with Russell on his reasons for cutting those lines and tutting along with him at that woman's attitude. His superb adaptation of the play with its many deviations from the text, is his adaptation of the play. He's not trying to pass the thing off as a sympathetic version of the text, it's clearly a re-imagining and re-interpretation with a very lucid set of logical decisions on how to cut the text and although in an ideal world there would have been more of it, the BBC having given him a longer timeslot to play about with, I had absolutely no problems with the choices he made. With the plays being four hundred years old there are a few things which can give one pause, even this genius couldn't foresee how social attitudes would change. Taming of the Shrew and A Merchant of Venice are not favourites of mine for just this reason. The former promotes domestic violence and the latter's racist.
Perhaps it helps that I've seen a lot of different versions of most of his plays now so despite my purism, I'm more relaxed about how it can be tossed about outside the theatre. It is true that earlier screen versions are more protective of the text. Russell cuts "How now, spirit! whither wander you?" and the ensuing scene which is pretty sacred ground, because as he says, it's perfectly obvious who these two are, where they're going and what they're doing. The business with the Indian boy is gone too. Yet both (I think!) are in the Michael Hoffman directed Hollywood version from 1999 which is only about half an hour longer. The cuts here are sympathetic enough that I don't think were were too short changed on the whole, combined with the imagery everything in this version of the story was perfectly lucid, especially, and here we arrive at the reason I'm writing this review in the first place if you're a Doctor Who fan.
Hello, and welcome because if it's good enough for the parish circular to be writing behind the scenes articles about this production, it's probably right that I should include it in my promise to review all screen Doctor Who. As Doctor Who Magazine explained and as the credits underscore, this was essentially filmed within an extra production block at the end of the ninth series of Doctor Who. Same set designers, costumers, special effects team, cast by Andy Pryor and with music by Murray Gold. We also have an explanation for why Who could afford the Trap Street from Face The Raven - they ammortised the cost with Dream because here it was again. Is it also the same street which appeared in The Husbands of River Song, I wonder? I really do have to get around to watching the season nine boxed set. I just have another four and a half seasons worth of Gilmore Girls to get through first.
Anyway, yes, this felt very much like, if not a Doctor Who spin-off, something set in the same universe. Apart from the totalitarian regime, there's the manifestation of Theseus and Hippolyta whose bondage would be just the sort of mystery the Time Lord would become involved in, entirely unhappy that someone would be treated this way, with a scratching one the sides of his brain about the consequences of setting her free, something his companion would end up doing anyway before the story's out. The woodland folk are notionally the monsters until he discovers that they have in mind a rescue mission and regime change, he'd be all for it (whilst simultaneously using the TARDIS to discover exactly how their science works so as not to contradict Clarke's Law and actually have magic in the Whoniverse). I'm glossing yet it's notable that Russell decided to take his adaptation in this direction.
Plus almost every cast member has previously appeared in Who, either on television or for Big Finish or in the case of Matt Lucas, both. There's Wilf, Dr Constantine, Nardole, Hydroflax, Jo Nakashima, Moran and Gobernar. Even Kate Kennedy, the revelation of the night and I think of the best Helenas I've seen, was in this month's main range release opposite Colin Baker (as Heather Treadstone). It can't be long before Maxine Peake turns up in Who and if Romola isn't free, Peake would be extraordinary playing the Doctor, assuming she doesn't mind putting her career on hold for three or four years to commute to or live in Cardiff for nine or ten months in the year. Yes, that's never going to happen. Side note: John Hannah had a weird six months consisting of this and his guest spots on Agents of SHIELD. The man is never out of work, even if the majority of that work is in bit-parts which are way beneath him.
Having such a strong cast also aids Davies's textual brevity endeavours. The Rude Mechanical scenes are shorter with the dialogue becoming something heard far off by the forest residents, the main rehearsal scene reduced to its most important points before Bottom goes donkey. But because it's Lucas and Wilson and Cribbins and Elaine Paige (in a stormer of a Shakespearean introduction) we're immediately drawn to them and want to be in their company, helped markedly by the decision to make them very much friends, Lucas's Bottom a popular figure who just wants to do his best for the company and production rather than the ignorant, arrogant person who's so often illogically at odds with them. Davies doesn't have room however to explain the oddity that two of them are initially cast at Pyramus's parents but represent wall and moon in the final production. It's just something which happened in rehearsal probably.
As for the other departures? I'm angrier with the press for revealing them ahead of time. One must always be cautious of the surprisingly gay trope, or whatever you call the moment which sometimes occurs in drama when characters formerly presumed to be straight decide to experiment for shock value at the end of an episode. Russell is playing with our expectations, preconceived gender notions and provides a perfectly reasonable rational for such. Yet the papers, full of mock outrage or at least mild surprise decided this was the aspect they'd focus on after the preview screening and so the film lost a little of its power on first viewing because of the expectation of what was to happen at the end, what was such a beautiful moment.
In the end, this version of A Midsummer Night's Dream wasn't just about what was removed but what was added. Something which never quite sits well is how in most productions, because it's in the text, Demetrius's infatuation with Helena is as manufactured a facade as the results of the potion Owen throws about in Torchwood's Everything Changes. In some versions, both he and Helena are infected which still doesn't feel right. Here Davies smartly takes a moment to have the love spell removed after which Demetrius finds that he still love Helena as much as she loves him. It's a small thing and it shows the level of thought Russell has put into this production and I wonder how many subsequent production might copy it. Even if some theatrical traditions were broken with last night, perhaps there'll be some which are newly made.