A Midsummer Night's Dream came early in Shakespeare's career. He had written it by at least 1598, in roughly the same period as another lyric-romantic masterpiece, Romeo and Juliet. Despite Samuel Pepys' famous dismissal of Dream as "the most insipid ridiculous play that ever I saw in my life," it has always been among the most popular of English comedies -- with the exception of R&J, it may be the most frequently produced of Shakespeare's works. It's also all too frequently wrecked in production, either crushed under some labored directorial concept or choked into ridiculous insipidity by ersatz fairy dust.
The latter is probably the more ignominious fate. Dream is, in part, a fantasy about fairies, which Disney has taught us to think of as cute, anthropomorphic fireflies. But many Elizabethans genuinely believed in these woodland sprites, and to them they were more complicated figures -- comical, sexual, potentially malevolent, certainly frightening. Shakespeare intends his Puck to be attractive, no doubt, but Tinkerbell he isn't -- his lines have a mysterious, manic edge.
One of the best of the many delights of Michael Hoffman's new film, William Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, is that he manages to have it both ways -- the gauzy fantasy and the bacchanal. Though the film is traditional enough in approach to employ Mendelssohn's incidental music -- as did Max Reinhardt's 1935 Hollywood version -- it is still an original. Like Kenneth Branagh's screen Shakespeares, this Dream could easily be underrated by highbrow critics as conventional, but it is so only on its vigorous, accessible surface. Hoffman, like Branagh, comes up with some truly inventive and startlingly valid interpretation on the level of characterization and mood.
Your heart may sink, for instance, when you see fireflies buzzing around under the opening titles, but that's not the whole story. When we finally get a look at the fairyland behind the glowworm disguise, the winged cuties drink and party (and orgy) in the company of more pungent mythological bogies like satyrs and even, in a cameo, the gorgon Medusa.
At the center of this world is a shifty, nervy, not-quite-knowable Puck. Stanley Tucci plays him with a perpetual "Who, me?" expression, a voluptuary bad boy caught with his hand either in the cookie jar or down someone's blouse.
Director Hoffman, who wrote the adaptation himself, opens this Dream with a title that jumps through some hoops explaining that the setting is 19th-century Italy, at a place called "Monte Athena." This allows him to shoot the film on the same sort of exquisite Tuscan locations that gave such a paradisal atmosphere to Branagh's Much Ado About Nothing, without it seeming odd when the characters keep referring to their home as "Athens."
Hoffman's 1995 comedy-drama Restoration, set in the court of Charles II, showed his gift for fanciful opulence and sensuality, useful in presenting both the fairy world and the court of Duke Theseus (David Strathairn). His 1996 romantic comedy One Fine Day gave him a solid grounding in the art of complicating the romance of couples plainly meant by fate to be lovers. And 1991's Soapdish -- a very good farce (set behind the scenes of a soap opera) that regrettably fell into the shadow of a great farce, Tootsie -- demonstrated Hoffman's fitness to lampoon the vanities and foibles of actors. This is essential to Dream because, along with the courtly romance and the magical folklore, the play offers the best parody of amateur theater ever written.
A group of tradesmen, or "rude mechanicals," plan to perform an "interlude" at the wedding celebration of Theseus and his bride, Hippolyta (Sophie Marceau), a dramatization of the tragic myth of Pyramus and Thisbe. The leading man of this well-intentioned but inept little troupe is Nick Bottom the weaver (Kevin Kline), and he's also the closest that Dream, a true ensemble piece, has to a lead role.
Bottom falls victim to Puck's erotic magic -- the Fairy King Oberon (Rupert Everett) has commanded Puck to play a joke on his wife, the Fairy Queen Titania (Michelle Pfeiffer), by enchanting her to fall in love with the first creature she spies upon awakening. This turns out to be Bottom, and Puck compounds her indignity by transforming Bottom's head into that of an ass.
Hoffman has concocted a subplot of his own, played out almost without words, involving Bottom's stern, disapproving wife (Heather Elizabeth Parisi). These scenes seem totally dispensable and are the only times when the energy level droops. Yet even this misfired idea is nonetheless part of the director's finest achievement in this Dream: a reimagining of Bottom and his fellow mechanicals as real comic characters rather than as broadly played clown roles.
The actors all seem happy in that way that only Shakespeare can make English-speaking actors. Pfeiffer is both absurdly beautiful and beautifully absurd in her playing of Titania's wholehearted infatuation with Bottom. Everett brings a subtle, indolent sense of luxury to Oberon, and while the mortal lovers are as colorless as ever, Christian Bale, Calista Flockhart, Anna Friel, and Dominic West at least keep them attractive and energetic. Flockhart was given the best of these fairly thankless roles -- the jilted-but-determined Helena -- and she plays it with uninhibited force; TV's Ally McBeal has given her such pop prominence at the moment that some may forget she's a highly regarded classical actress. (In a brief seminude scene, however, she really does look shockingly undernourished.)
Kline makes Bottom lovable, complex, and humanly convincing. Handsome with an edge of shabbiness, he's a fatuous ass even before he's transformed, and he's authentically romantic even with donkey's ears growing out of his head. And his speech after he awakes is a spine-tingler.
The other mechanicals get less to do but take advantage of what they get. Roger Rees is a diplomatic Quince; wonderful Max Wright is a put-upon Starveling; and Bill Irwin's Snout and Gregory Jbara's Snug provide what is needed from them. Hoffman's most inspired piece of invention, though, is allowing Flute (Sam Rockwell) to become a good actor in his final speech as Thisbe. It cuts the froth with a whisper of romantic poignancy, and it chases away four centuries of aristocratic patronization.