This morning I watched the first half of Peter Hall’s 1968 film version of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” on DVD. Then I attended a matinee performance of Julie Taymor’s current off-Broadway production (I went all alone — it was my holiday treat to self). Then I went back home and watched the second half of the film.
I hadn’t wanted to see either one before the other, so as not to taint either of the two experiences. So I split the difference by watching the film in two parts, which worked out splendidly.
It’s a bit unfair to compare the performances. The 1968 film had the great British actors Helen Mirren, David Warner, Judi Dench, Ian Holm, Diana Rigg, Ian Richardson and others, all at the top of their game.
In contrast, some of the acting in the Taymor version was a bit uneven (alas, the young man who played Lysander was in way over his head), although many of the cast were quite wonderful, and Max Casella as Bottom the Weaver was actually better than Paul Rogers from the 1968 film.
But of course we don’t go to a Julie Taymor production just for the words, even when the words are by William Shakespeare. This fantastical story was a perfect fit for Taymor’s brand of theatrical magic. The scenes of the woodland faerie world at night were breathtaking in their beauty and visual wit — for much of the play the entire audience was lost in rapture.
There were moments during the film, such as after a particularly lovely speech by Helen Mirren or Judi Dench, that I thought the poetry of Shakespeare’s words, beautifully delivered, to be all that mattered. And also many moments in the theater when I was in thrall to the power of Taymor’s visual magic. At such moments I would ask myself, which is the better variety of enchantment?
Fortunately we don’t need to choose. The Peter Hall film and the Julie Taymor theatrical production can each be enjoyed for what they are.
Sometimes both in the same day.