In Los Angeles, every year some company somewhere will perform Shakespeare’s “Midsummer Night’s Dream” and while you might have seen it, you might not really know it. In its second season, PBS “Shakespeare Uncovered” brings us “‘Midsummer Night’s Dream’ with Hugh Bonneville,” premiering today and available VoD on the PBS website thereafter.
You might not think of the stuffy patriarch of Downton Abbey as the natural for this wild play. As the “Shakespeare Uncovered” sums it up “Midsummer Night’s Dream” is “a play full of magic, mayhem, sex, drugs and donkeys.” American audiences have come to know Bonneville through his Robert Grantham, a proper British lord who as an impoverished young man was a gold digger and married an rich American named Cora. By the time we meet first meet him, he is middle-aged with three daughters and a need for them to marry well in order to keep the estate.
“Midsummer Night’s Dream” is also much about marriage although Bonneville confesses that “ever since I was a child, I loved this play.” This play has something for everyone–love and good actors playing bad actors and magic. Bonneville adds that “It’s the play that started my career.”
Although the play takes place in Athens, it is very much an English comedy. There are three intertwining plots, connected to the celebration of the political marriage between the Duke Theseus of Athens to his captive, the Amazon queen Hippolyta.
The Duke must mediate a dispute between Egeus and his daughter Hermia. Egeus wants her to marry Demetrius. Hermia loves Lysander and refuses, but Egeus invokes Athenian law which decrees that a daughter must marry the man chosen by her father or be put to death. The Duke softens that law by offering Hermia a life a chastity as a nun to the goddess Diana.
Hermia and Lysander instead escape into the forest. They are followed by Demetrius who hopes to kill Lysander and re-claim Hermia, but Demetrius is followed by Helena–his former love.
In another part of Athens, a group of amateur actors plan a play to present to the Duke and his bride during the wedding celebrations–the tale of Pyramus and Thisbe. Nick Bottom wants to play all the roles, but must settle on playing Pyramus. The group decides to meet in the forest to practice.
Yet the forest is the home of another king, a supernatural king who is having an argument with his queen. Oberon, king of the fairies, and his queen, Titania, are arguing over who should have possession over a changeling. Titania refuses to release him into Oberon’s custody and tell Oberon that she will attend Theseus and Hippolyta’s wedding. To punish Titania for her disobedience, with the help of Puck he casts as spell. He first changes Nick Bottom, changing his head to that of a donkey and makes Titania fall in love with this half-man, half-donkey.
Oberon also observes Demetrius cruelly rejecting Helena and not knowing that Hermia and Lysander are in the forest, asks Puck to cause Demetrius to fall in love with Helena. Puck mistakenly causes Lysander to fall in love with Helena. Oberon then causes Demetrius to fall in love with Helena and soon Lysander and Demetrius are again both in pursuit of the same woman, but this time Helena instead of poor, bewildered Hermia.
Eventually, this love quadrangle is corrected and the rude mechanicals perform their play before an amused Theseus and Hippolyta after Theseus has overruled Egeus and married Hermia to Lysander and Helena to Demetrius. There is a happy ending.
And yet, the “Midsummer Night’s Dream” is, according to Jonathan Bale, a professor at Oxford University, “It’s his first mature masterpiece.”
The play isn’t just for men, it has plenty to say for women. Gail Kern Paster, the Director Emerita of the Folger Shakespeare Library, comments “What the play really wants us to feel is that women deserve the guy they want and they deserve to have the guy they want love them back.” That’s a novel idea in a world where marriage politics have alienated England from the Pope in Rome and yet, they are under a so-called Virgin Queen who refuses both a love marriage and a political match. Some of the text refers to famous contemporary events involving Queen Elizabeth.
Steven Greenblatt of Harvard also comments that this play is “one of the most sexually transgressive and explicit…a play of remarkable innocence.” This is a play that also makes fun of amateur actors while loving them.
Bonneville looks at the play as the basis for movies, beginning with an 11-minute 1909 silent movie. For “Midsummer Night’s Dream” the prize role isn’t the lovers. It is Nick Bottom, evidenced by a clip of James Cagney portraying the arrogant amateur actor.
Bonneville got his start in this play in 1986 when he understudied at the New Shakespeare Company for Ralph Fiennes. He talks to Fiennes about their experiences in this play as well as talking to David Walliams (“Britain’s Got Talent”) who was in the 2013 London production playing Nick Bottom.
For a while, “Midsummer Night’s Dream” fell out of favor because people weren’t interested in fairies, but one particular modernist production changed all that and the comedy became one of the most often performed Shakespearean plays.
Perhaps it helps that we have come to love fairies and the world of imagination again but it also helps to remember in Shakespeare’s day everyone wanted to meet a fairy but they were terrified of meeting a fairy. And at some level the fairy queen is Queen Elizabeth, a strong woman who ruled a country without a man, one of the first feminists before the movement even had that name.
As with all of “Shakespeare Uncovered,” you learn more about what different people think and how people of Shakespeare’s time thought about aspects of the play. You’ll see snippets of various, wildly different productions and learn about history and hear from scholars. It’s all entertaining, making me wish I could seen more than one of the full productions represented here and even the one that began the career of a young Hugh Bonneville.
“Shakespeare Uncovered” Season 2 begins Friday, 30 January at 9 p.m. (Check local listings). After the initial broadcast, it will be available VoD.