onsdag 8 juni 2016

Give Theseus a break - he's not that bad

A recent London trip has left me spoilt for choice when it comes to things to spend a blog post grumbling about. The three nights I stayed in and watched telly, I came across an unfunny Midsummer Night's Dream, a costume drama about Louis XIV's private life (Versailles) that managed to be boring, and an Alice in Wonderland film completely devoid of charm. My choice falls on the Midsummer Night's Dream, as adapted by Russell T Davies. My gripes regarding the other programmes can be too easily summarised (Versailles - bad script, Alice in Wonderland - nothing to do with Alice, plus are we really supposed to root for the ghastly White Queen?). Besides, when Theseus in the Dream is turned into a Fascist dictator, I feel a line has been crossed.

I feared the worst for this Dream when Lysander's joke about Demetrius possessing Hermia's father's love - "do you marry him" - fell completely flat. It continued in the same vein: I sat stony-faced through Bottom's grandstanding, the Athenian girls' cat fight in the woods, Titania's infatuation and the rude mechanicals' play. There were nice touches in this adaptation - the feral nature of the fairies; Puck's uncharacteristically disinterested attempt to mediate between Oberon and Titania; a moment during the concluding masque when Puck removes Demetrius's flower enchantment - and he still stays in love with Helena (yep, one does sort of worry about that enchantment and how durable it is). But, as they would have said in The West Wing, they left out the funny.

I love Davies's work on Doctor Who, so this was a major disappointment. His attempts to force some same-sex romance into the Dream were ham-fisted, too. I'm sorry, but Titania and Hippolyta? It simply doesn't work.

Which sort of brings us to Theseus. First of all, if I never see another Fascist Dictator spin on a Shakespeare play, it will be too soon. There's nothing clever about it. There have always been dictators and tyrants throughout history, but that doesn't mean their ideas have much in common with Fascism. Ian McKellen famously played a Fascist/Nazi Richard III, but Shakespeare's Richard isn't wedded to any ideology, however abhorrent. He's simply power-hungry and opportunistic. The parallel didn't make any sense to me, though it had the merit of further distancing Shakespeare's Richard III from the historical one (I have mentioned they have nothing in common, haven't I?). We do not need similarities between historical/fictional tyrants and their modern-day counterparts to be hammered home - we're not stupid. By the way, not all modern dictators have been Fascists, have they?

As for poor Theseus, there's no evidence that's he's a tyrant at all, let alone a Fascist one. He upholds the Athenian law - the "ancient privilege of Athens", so presumably not of his own making - but for a ruler to disobey the laws of his realm on a whim would be to act like - oh, I don't know, a dictator? He reasons quite patiently with Hermia, because he doesn't wish her to die or to join the cult of Diana (Artemis, surely?) and have to abjure the company of men. The scene where her case is discussed ends with him taking away Hermia's father Egeus and Demetrius to talk of "something nearly that concerns yourselves", so it seems likely he tries to reason with them too. Egeus is the character it's toughest for a modern audience - or perhaps any audience - to get their head round. Maybe he has his own reasons for thinking Demetrius a better match than Lysander for Hermia; maybe he distrusts Lysander's motives; maybe he's just trying to call his daughter's bluff. All the same, he does seem quite ready to have his girl put to death (and does not even mention the cult of Diana/Artemis option).

It's often assumed that Hippolyta lends Hermia her silent support and is irritated with her husband-to-be for confirming Egeus's rights. Charles Spencer, the now sadly retired theatre critic of the Telegraph, praised a Dream production where Hippolyta did not, as is the custom, "glower" at Theseus, and I couldn't agree more. Yes, Hippolyta is a strong woman, but she has also been a ruler, and she must surely know the pressures of office. There is nothing in the play to suggest that she is anything but perfectly fine with wedding Theseus. So, he wooed her with his sword. How else would you woo an Amazon? Flowers and chocolate? It stands to reason that she should fall for a successful warrior. There may be different mythological stories about how Theseus came by Hippolyta's hand, and in the end he unwisely ditched her for Phaedra, but the couple we see in Shakespeare's play seem happy enough. Davies's vision of Hippolyta as a strait-jacketed prisoner of war is nowhere in evidence.

There's nothing wrong with having a good think about any of Shakespeare's plays, but the Dream is supposed to be the Shakespearean equivalent of a rom-com, frothy and fun. If Davies gets unstuck over a crustily misogynist piece of ancient Athenian law-making, then I wouldn't trust him with adapting any of Shakespeare's more problematic plays. I'd be glad to see his return to Doctor Who any day of the week, though.