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Monday, February 9, 2015

Shakespeare Uncovered A Midsummer Night's Dream


I just watched the Shakespeare Uncovered documentary episode about A Midsummer Night's Dream.

It's an excellent documentary, and well worth watching.

The episode was hosted by Hugh Bonneville, who is arguably most famous for his role on Downtown Abbey, and whose personal favorite Shakespeare play is Midsummer.


Hugh Bonneville

He is a great guide, and his love of the play is very clear. 

I really enjoy this Shakespeare Uncovered series, which is now in its second season. It is a fun introduction to the play for those people who are unfamiliar with the play. Even for people who are very familiar with the play like myself, it has some delightful moments and some surprises, like showing us a clip from the very first film version of the play -- a silent film in 1909 which is only 11 minutes long.

It is also fun to see a picture of a young Hugh Bonneville in 1986 working as an understudy for Lysander at the Regent's Park Open Air Theatre. It was his first professional job, and he would go on to play the part on tour.


Hugh Bonneville in Midsummer, on the left, 1986

The actor for whom he understudied is quite a funny surprise, and I don't want to ruin it for you. But it is great to see these two actors together discuss a play that means so much to them.

There are other great film clips, including Helen Mirren as Titania from a 1981 TV movie version, and James Cagney as Bottom in the first sound film version from 1935.

The scholars who add insight to the play include Jonathan Bate, Stephen Greenblatt, Michael Dobson from the Shakespeare Institute and Gail Kern Paster from the Shakespeare Folger Library in Washington, D.C. 


Helen Mirren as Titania, 1981

There are many clips from Dominic Dromgoole's production of Midsummer at Shakespeare's Globe Theatre and from Julie Taymor's recent production at Theatre For A New Audience (which I saw on stage, my review here). Both Ms. Taymor and Mr. Dromgoole also add some commentary to the documentary. Also included are some clips and behind the scenes interviews with Michael Grandage and David Walliams, as Bottom, for their 2013 production.


Julie Taymor's production, 2013


As much as I enjoyed this episode, I do wish there was more discussion of the historical context in which Shakespeare wrote the play, and why he wrote this play.

They do mention that one theory is that Shakespeare wrote the play for the second wedding of the widowed Countess of Southampton, the mother of his artistic patron, Henry Wriothesley, Earl of Southampton.

There is very little exploration of this theory in the documentary, nor are other theories mentioned. I happen to disagree with this theory, and prefer theory that the play was written for the marriage of the daughter of the Lord Chamberlain George Carey, Shakespeare's official patron.

But what's curious about the theory they do mention is that while they talk about how Midsummer and Romeo and Juliet were written in the same year, and how Midsummer's Pyramus and Thisbe scene is a comical homage to Romeo and Juliet, they don't stop to comment on the fact that Romeo and Juliet was written for the Earl of Southampton. In other words, they don't stop to consider the significance that the plays might have been written for the mother and the son.

Also, Romeo and Juliet was written at a time when the Earl of Southampton promised himself to his future wife, Elizabeth Vernon. I wrote about this at greater length here.

In any event, I didn't expect too much scholarship in this documentary, but what little there was really was far from enough.


The Lovers in Dominic Dromgoole's Globe production, 2013

Perhaps my favorite part of the documentary is when Mr. Bonneville visits Kenilworth Castle, 12 miles from Stratford. 

He discusses the idea that an 11 year old Shakespeare may have seen Queen Elizabeth in person. I wrote about this myself, here.

In the play, Oberon speaks a line: "Since once I sat upon a promontory, And heard a mermaid on a dolphin's back." 

This line refers to part of the entertainment Queen Elizabeth saw in 1575 at Kenilworth, when an artificial lake was created, across which a mechanical dolphin swam.

This is a fascinating moment in history, when the queen visited Kenilworth, and it is also quite fascinating and curious that Shakespeare would mention that exact moment in his play, 20 years later.

I do wish the documentary would have explored this in more depth, but nevertheless it was fun to see Mr. Bonneville discuss this as he traveled to Kenilworth.


Dominic Dromgoole's Globe production, 2013

I highly recommend this documentary series, and if you miss it on TV, don't worry, it will be on DVD this month, 24 February. You can order it here:

http://www.amazon.com/Shakespeare-Uncovered-2-Morgan-Freeman/dp/B00PHD6EY6/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1423502221&sr=8-1&keywords=shakespeare+uncovered


And don't miss the first series, available here:

http://www.amazon.com/Shakespeare-Uncovered-Ethan-Hawke/dp/B00B1E6EAY/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1423502146&sr=8-2&keywords=shakespeare+uncovered


Cheers,


David B. Schajer

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