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There is a ferocity about this production that is off-putting. Titania and Oberon are not ethereally at odds, but grimly at war. Puck has vampire fangs and looks like a hustler who'd offer to sell you club drugs. The rustics are not funny ever. In sum, the playfulness and magic we expect in this play are absent.
That said, it's pretty to look at, as director Elijah Moshinsky continues his progress through the catalog of Old Masters paintings, usually but not always in consonance with the text.
Helen Mirren is an iron-willed professional as Titania, even when the changeling child cries in her arms during a major speech. Peter McEnery's cold Oberon shows violent rage at the lovers' confusion, and in punishment holds Puck's head underwater a bit too long for comedy.
Cherith Mellor is particularly good as Helena, in her only appearance in the BBC Shakespeare series. Nigel Davenport is a pleasure to listen to as Duke Theseus, in his only appearance, other than the 1978 "Much Ado" with Anthony Andrews, Michael York and Penelope Keith that was supposed to inaugurate the series but was buried. Otherwise there is little delightful about this Dream, which all too often verges on Nightmare.
The slapstick dispute among the four lovers uses thickly overlapping dialog, which speeds things up but renders it unusable in the classroom. The rude mechanicals are gentrified here, killing Shakespeare's pointed class distinction and most of the humor with it. Geoffrey Palmer is ineffective as Peter Quince. Brian Glover gives his all as Bottom, but is Liliputian compared to the awe-inspiring Paul Rogers in the Peter Hall film.
In fact, that delightful Peter Hall film from 1968 is superior in every major aspect except the technical ones. There Ian Richardson and Judi Dench make magic as the Fairies' Rulers, Helen Mirren, Diana Rigg, David Warner and Michael Jayston are the lovers, Paul Rogers is Bottom and Ian Holm plays Puck as Oberon's faithful dog, tongue hanging out in eagerness for mischief - all shot outdoors in a wondrous twilight wood. Now that's one bewitching Dream!
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