A large theater. A full house of predominantly young viewers, a little restless, a little rambunctious. The lights go down, the show begins, the chatter stops and attention is rapt for the next two hours, the only sounds that of delighted laughter from the charmed spectators.
That description would befit an audience in the seventeenth century at the Globe Theatre, seeing Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. It equally well describes our experience tonight seeing Michael Hoffman’s film of the Shakespeare play. A captivating movie, it is real Shakespeare this time – his words, all the way through. His poetry ringing from the screen and delighting the ear. His love story, championing true love over arranged marriages, arbitrary rules and parents who treat their children as chattel. His magical world of fairies and wood nymphs mingling briefly with the mortal characters, placed by Hoffman in Tuscany at the turn of the twentieth century, a strategy that works very well indeed. We get to see the splendid Tuscan countryside, bathed in a golden glow; it needs no fairy spell to be magical. The social context – arranged marriage, a privileged noble class – fits perfectly. And Hoffman introduces the bicycle as a major prop for our many characters to speed about in the fairy forest.
No doubt there will be purists who will quibble with one detail or another, with an accent a tad off center or whatever. Pay them no heed. The ensemble performance by a cast of both known and rising stars is joyously natural; the dialogue is, for the most part, beautifully articulated and fully understandable, without sacrificing the poetry at all.
Amongst the stellar cast, Kevin Kline, as Bottom, the weaver and amateur actor, uses all his considerable hamminess when appropriate to show us the overblown bluster which is the surface of the character. But Kline also displays wonderful restraint and subtlety; we get to see the sad underside of the bravado as well. When converted to an ass by scheming Oberon (Rupert Everett), Kline’s Bottom becomes softer, gentler, engaged by the unaccustomed love and passion lavished upon him by beautiful Titania (Michelle Pfeiffer).
Calista Flockhart, usually found in significantly less interesting circumstances as the star of Ally McBeal, here gets to show her real thespian talents as Helena, the spurned lover who won’t give up on her man. Flockhart’s delivery of the Shakespeare lines is faultless, her energy level charged, and her charm considerable as she pursues her beloved, Demetrius (Christian Bale). The other couple in this deliciously confused menage, the couple running away for true love against the wishes of her odious father, Hermia and Lysander, are played by Anna Friel and Dominic West and they nearly steal the show with their charismatic youthfulness. Stanley Tucci as Puck is suitably, well, Puckish, with a glint in his eye and an endearing amiability.
The production is lush and handsome. Well executed special effects are used for the fairy episodes, but Hoffman uses great restraint, unusual of late in productions on this scale. Hoffman finds just the right amount of effects to lend the required sense of magic and awe, but he is careful not to overwhelm his characters or Mr. Shakespeare with unnecessary excess.
Having Italy as the setting provides an ideal opportunity for using some opera on the soundtrack to highlight the action and the emotions. And when Hoffman stages a party at the grand villa of the Duke you want to be there, especially if Kevin Kline is performing as Pyramus against the unforgettable Thisbe of Sam Rockwell. The play within the play is rolling-in-the-aisles funny. As Rockwell’s Thisbe unexpectedly emerges into a genuinely felt and poignant performance, every boy who was ever coerced into playing the role – your reviewer included – will feel vindicated.