Julie Taymor’s Midsummer Night’s Dream

I was just able to see a broadcast of Julie Taymor’s Midsummer Night’s Dream at the  Sedona Film Festival.

For those of you who might not know her, Julie Taymor directed Anthony Hopkins in the 1999 Titus and the 2010 Hellen Mirren Tempest. Maybe more significantly, she directed The Lion King on Broadway (there’s an homage in the play; Snug’s costume as Lion uses paint brushes to simulate a lion’s mane, which looks like a stylized Lion King costume.)

In any event, against the current trend, it’s good to see Taymor still believes in Director’s Theater. She wasn’t really over-the-top on this one, but the set designs and stylized costumes betrayed her more Broadway-appropriate skills. I enjoyed it for the most part; I loved the little LEDs that lit up Titania’s face in the darkened theater and the costumes and set designs were spectacle.

What I realized I don’t like about spectacle, though, is that it distracts. I go to hear a Shakespeare play because I want to hear his poetry done beautifully. But in productions like this Shakespeare’s language feels secondary; the actors run around with props and float up or down from the ceiling and ignore the language. They don’t respect the iambic pentameter and all of their method-acting training runs amok. Every line has a pregnant pause; the actors find reasons to pause several times in any speech and sometimes between every word. They often land hard on rhymes, over-stressing them and making them sound juvenile (sometimes this works with the couples, who do act rather juvenile anyway).

What I thought was great though was Taymor’s use of difference; for example she cast Hermia as a buxom blonde and Helena as an African American. When Helena comes on stage and says, “Call you me ‘fair’? That ‘fair’ again unsay./Demetrius loves your fair. O happy fair!” Hearing a black woman ask why she is called “fair,” I immediately wonder if Demetrius has spurned Helena because she is black. I thought that added interesting complexity to the Hermia/Helena/Lisander/Demetrius foursome. Of course, Shakespeare’s text does not develop it further, but I wonder with how seamlessly it seemed to work whether Shakespeare did or didn’t intend for there to be some obvious differences between them. It’s a central critical question to interpreting the play; is there a difference between these characters? (Is Helena much taller than Hermia?) Or does the fact that love is blind make the only difference?

In any event, difference (including race) was also used to good effect with the rude mechanicals. Bottom has a Brooklyn accent, Starveling is gay, Flute is Latino, and Snout is African American. All of the actors playing these characters got laughs playing differences; again, I was really struck by how easy it was to incorporate differences into the play without it seeming stilted or forced. Oberon was also black; Titania white (literally here, Oberon was black man painted black, Titania was a white woman painted white).

Also deserving mention is Kathryn Hunter’s Puck. I read a great article by Bridget Escolme about other possibilities for actors from the prospective of training; most actors do some kind of method or Stanislavsky-based training. Escolme used Hunter to point out there are other possibilities. She has trained in physical comedy and clowning including with Jacques Lecoq. You can see it in her acting style, which is quite appropriate for the character of Puck.


Finally, I have to admit I’m over watching children run around as the fairies. Anyone familiar with Kott will be aware that this play is not necessarily for kids; besides the bestiality and threat of rape in the forest, there are enough dark and/or sexual overtones in the play to make it rather adult-oriented. Taymor ignored all of these. Her fairies are children, Helena happily barks like a dog, and Titania is happy to be tricked into sleeping with an ass and giving away her fairy boy in order to create the happy ending.

However, my quibbles aside, I have to say the full capacity crowd I saw the broadcast with seemed to enjoy it. It was the largest crowd I had seen at this theater; I’m wondering whether it was the play or the director that brought out the crowd.

In any event, I enjoyed it. Besides overdoing the dramatic pauses, the actors were good, and perhaps MSD is Shakespeare’s most bulletproof script; the rude mechanicals never fail to entertain.

Random bits:
–There were some shaky closeup steady cam shots early in the shooting; they eventually (thankfully) disappeared. There was one good rack focus from a foregrounded Oberon to a background Titania.

mnd rack focus

–Thisbe followed the Michael Hoffman 1999 MND, in that they went for a moment of real acting as Thisbe prepares to commit suicide over Pyramus. Not as good a performance from Thisbe, but this production used some music to also communicate to the crowd that this was not a comedic scene.