Peter Hall’s 1968 film version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream was my introduction to Shakespeare—and it arrived not a moment too soon, coming as it did just before my ninth-grade teacher (a man capable of draining all the fun out of anything) was about to ruin The Merchant of Venice for me for at least 20 years. (OK, so the only reason I watched the film at the time was due to the presence of Diana Rigg as Helena in the cast, but what do you expect from a 14-year-old diehard fan of The Avengers?) I was immediately entranced by Hall’s film and played the audio tape (yes, in those prehistoric days, audio was all we could record) I made of the broadcast endlessly, but oddly I hadn’t seen the film again until I reviewed it for this screening. What a delight it was to find that the film not only holds up, but now seems even better. In fact, it may be the ultimate in respectfully radical Shakespeare adaptations—radical in that it presents the story in purely 1960s terms; respectful in that it includes nearly all of Shakespeare’s text. (And it doesn’t rearrange the text in the way William Dieterle and Max Reinhardt did in their visually stunning, but dramatically pretty ghastly, 1935 A Midsummer Night’s Dream.)
Hall approached the material almost as a Richard Lester film of the same cinematic era. From the moment he opens the film with the word “Athens” superimposed over a very obvious English manor house, it’s evident that he’s not going to give us anything traditional—something quickly reinforced by Helena and Hermia (a very young Helen Mirren) in miniskirts and go-go boots and Lysander (David Warner) and Demetrius (Michael Jayston) in clothes that might have been bought that morning on Carnaby Street. Of course, the point to all this was largely to make the production more relevant to 1968 audiences, but it did something more: It made the film relevant to something of the spirit of the play as it must have seemed in Shakespeare’s day. This is a marvelously earthy (sometimes literally in the case of its increasingly mud-spattered quartet of lovers) version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream—something that anchors in reality one of Shakespeare’s most fantasticated works. It’s a full-blown delight, with a cast that seems like an impossible dream now, but was simply good and practical sense then—not just Rigg, Mirren and Warner, but Judi Dench, Ian Holm and Ian Richardson as well. Don’t miss this one. And if anyone can remember whether or not CBS actually aired this intact in 1968 with Dench in her Titania costume, which consisted of essentially body paint, two pasties and a fig leaf, please let me know!