Bo Bergstrom | A Midsummer Night's Dream

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A Midsummer Night's Dream

by Bo Bergstrom

Shakespeare's most popular comedy portrays the emotional ups and downs of four young lovers and a really bad troupe of amateur actors. As Puck knows, falling in love can make fools of us all!
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DVD. Factory-replicated from glass masters. All regions. 157 mins.

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“A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” William Shakespeare's most popular comedy, was written around 1595. Dealing with the universal theme of love and its complications: lust, disappointment, confusion, marriage, it features three interlocking plots, connected by a celebration of the wedding of Duke Theseus of Athens and the Amazonian queen Hippolyta.

In the opening sequence, Hermia refuses to comply with her father Egeus's wish for her to marry his chosen man, Demetrius. In response, Egeus quotes to Theseus an ancient Athenian law whereby a daughter must marry the suitor chosen by her father, or else face death or lifelong chastity as a nun.

Hermia and her lover Lysander therefore decide to elope, camping in the forest. Hermia informs her best friend Helena, but Helena has recently been rejected by Demetrius and decides to win back his favor by revealing the plan to him. Demetrius, followed doggedly by Helena, chases Hermia, who, in turn, pursues Lysander, from whom she becomes separated.

Meanwhile, Oberon, king of the fairies, and his queen, Titania, arrive in the same forest to attend Theseus and Hippolyta's wedding. Oberon and Titania are estranged because Titania refuses to give her Indian page-boy to Oberon for use as his henchman, since the child's mother was one of Titania's worshippers. Oberon seeks to punish Titania's disobedience and recruits the mischievous Puck (also called Robin Goodfellow) to help him apply a magical juice from a flower called love-in-idleness, which makes the victim fall in love with the first living thing they see when they wake up. Oberon applies the juice to Titania in order to distract her and force her to give up the page-boy.

Things become more complex when Oberon encounters the Athenian lovers and tells Puck to use the magic flower to aid their love lives. Due to Puck's errors, Hermia's two lovers temporarily turn against her in favor of Helena. The four pursue and quarrel with one another, losing themselves in a smog of Puck's doing and in a maze of their romantic entanglements.

Meanwhile, a band of "rude mechanicals" (lower-class craftsmen) have arranged to perform a crude play about Pyramus and Thisby for Theseus's wedding, and they venture into the forest to rehearse. Nick Bottom, a stage-struck weaver, is spotted by Puck, who transforms his head into that of a donkey. Titania is awakened by Bottom's singing, and she immediately falls in love with him. She treats him as if he were a nobleman and lavishes attention upon him. While in this state of devotion, she encounters Oberon and, during a dance with Oberon, gives him the Indian boy.

Having achieved his goal, Oberon releases Titania and orders Puck to remove the ass's head from Bottom. The magical enchantment is removed from Lysander but it is allowed to remain on Demetrius, so that he may reciprocate Helena's love. The fairies then disappear.

Theseus and Hippolyta arrive on the scene during an early morning hunt. They wake the lovers and, since Demetrius no longer loves Hermia, Theseus overrules Egeus's demands and permits the two couples to marry. The lovers decide that the night's events must have been a dream. After they exit, Bottom awakes, and he too decides that he must have experienced a dream "past the wit of man to say what dream it was."

In the ruins of Athens, Theseus, Hippolyta, and the lovers watch the craftsmen perform the badly-written play "Pyramus and Thisby." It is badly performed and ridiculous but gives everyone pleasure regardless, and after the mechanicals dance a Bergomask (rustic dance), everyone retires to bed. Finally, as night falls, Oberon and Titania bless the house, its occupants, and the future children of the newlyweds, and Puck delivers an epilogue to the audience asking for applause.

This work is widely performed around the world, and no wonder - it's about the world's most popular pastime, falling in love. But as Puck knows, falling in love can make fools of us all. Love is crazy, love is mad. Will love win out in the end?


This independent film made by Virus Theatre and unfolding in the mountains and forests of the Southwest U.S. is a quirky and offbeat but always illuminating film version of Shakespeare’s play. Making full use of outdoor locations – a ruined concrete building and rocky outcrops – the film transforms Shakespeare’s early modern Athenian lovers into squabbling backpackers disoriented by a displacement into unfamiliar natural environs.

Casting is imaginative and, in keeping with the general conceit, purposefully non-conventional: not only are some parts switched in terms of gender, others are given an unexpected twist. Bottom (Sam Bensusen) is a bearded would-be thespian who speaks with an Irish brogue; Oberon (Dominic Dahl-Bredine) is a dreadlocked and Gothicized type; and Puck (Becca Anderson) appears as a distinctly earth-bound spirit in glasses and dungarees. Even if most of the language of the play is retained with few cuts, which will make the DVD attractive to students and teachers, this remains a Shakespeare angled towards a radical re-envisioning of the Bard and revelling in opportunities for change and experiment.

Matching the insouciant approach to Shakespearean representational tradition, visuals are consistently inventive, functioning in such a way as to approximate the woozy dream-like experiences of the ‘original’. Shots of seas and lightning, cut into the action proper, dovetail with the dialogue and make available postmodern realizations of Shakespearean language and allusion. Green-tinged filters offer reminders of the role of nature in shaping human action, while inserts of animals, such as fighting stags, reinforce the sense of primal erotic conflict. Stylistically, the film is trick heavy; indeed, A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM turns into a veritable showcase of imported cinematic artifice and graphic expertise. Colourful compositions show fragments of Shakespeare’s text illuminated on screen as if in acknowledgement of the reputation of the work that is being adapted, the effect of which is to place characters’ anxieties and motivations in another register. The speeding up of the physical business of the ‘mechanicals’ – hand-held camera work is to the fore – makes them akin to silent film comedians and grants their rehearsals a slapstick emphasis, while the superimposition of images gives to the whole a pronounced self-consciousness. Indeed, at several points, not least in the mechanicals’ performance, cameras are glimpsed, which highlights the labour that informs the filmic product. All is anti-realist and off-key; the stress is on surprise and provocation and on keeping the spectator in a heightened sense of critical engagement.

In diegetic terms, it is consistently centred on placing word and sound together in a productive relation. The film’s soundtrack, a specially composed score by Joseph Rivers, makes a virtue of its polymorphous influences, for Gaelic strains combine with twangy lullabies in an evocative invocation of non-western aural effects (helped by the use of the Indian flute) and Elizabethan-style musical accompaniments (sounds of the viol bring a Shakespearean world to mind). Notably successful is the way in which the film deploys music to draw attention to dialogic specifics; for example, the recreation of an early modern soundscape matches shots of beetles, snakes and spiders, apt images for Shakespeare’s preoccupation with natural denizens. The to-and-fro synthesized strains of the score also approximates the unpredictable nature of a character’s experience, as is reflected in Helena’s (Teresa Dahl-Bredine’s) constant manipulation of a yoyo, an index of her emotional vicissitude. When, towards the close, the characters appear in smarter dress, having left behind their student-type identities, the suggestion is that, via a dream-like transformation, a greater calm and stability have been achieved.

--by Mark Thornton Burnett. Professor Burnett teaches at Queen’s University, Belfast. His books include Filming Shakespeare in the Global Marketplace (Palgrave, 2007) and The Edinburgh Companion to Shakespeare and the Arts (Edinburgh University Press, 2011).



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