Mark Thornton Burnett


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.

    Published in Viewfinder, October 2011, No. 84, 30    British Universities Film & Video Council  
    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).

●   Joseph Rivers, the composer of the score, prepared a CD of the soundtrack, which we highly recommend: 

●   The Internet Movie Database displays information about our film and includes two videos: 

    ●  Our DVD is available at Sale priced at $5.95. Enjoy!

     Thanks for reading.