Tuesday, 31 May 2016

Midsummer Nights Dream - 32 years later, BBC catches up with Leicester

Last night BBC 1 showed an excellent version of Midsummer Night's Dream, adapted by Russell T Davies and directed by David Kerr. It neatly shaped the play to be 90 minutes long with a good balance of fantasy (it has, inevitably, been compared to Doctor Who) and comedy, with extra added LGBT fun that Shakespeare probably didn't have in mind. I was chuffed to find that I was the first to add it to Midsummer Night's Dream's Wikipedia entry (I hope my edit is still there, they often get taken down for no obvious reason). In my entry I make mention of this adaptation's healthy Black And Minority Ethnic mix in the cast (casting by Andy Pryor, also of Doctor Who).

Which brings the BBC kicking and screaming to the the standard of The Leicester Haymarket 32 years ago.

Way back in 1984, fresh from our very first visit as punters to the Edinburgh Fringe, Heather and I booked to see pretty well the next year's worth of shows at the Haymarket in Leicester. And amongst them, in October 1984, was A Midsummer Night's Dream designed by John Byrne, who was then artistic director of Leicester Haymarket, and who many will know as the writer of Tutti Frutti, the painter of Gerry Rafferty's album covers and portraits of Billy Connolly, and as one of Scotland's greatest living artists.

The production was directed by Nancy Meckler and as well as including the most hilarious Rude Mechanicals, in the form of Edinburgh Fringe stars The People Show - whose Pyramus & Thisbe remained the laugh-out-loud funniest I had seen until The Lord Chamberlain's Men's outdoor production in 2011 - it had the best and most representative BAME casting I'd seen to that date. Given that this show took place in Leicester, in 1984, it would have been wrong and totally unrepresentative of the city to have cast it any other way. 32 years later, even moreso.

The cast included Don Warrington (of Rising Damp fame) as Oberon and Theseus, Angela Bruce (of Angels, and Doctor Who's Battlefield) as Helena, Souad Faress as Titania and Hippolyta, Vicky Licorish as Hermia, and local schoolkids, almost all Indian, as the fairies. In 1984 it seemed perfect, and one would have thought that would be how things would stay from that time on.

Or, as they say this century, "going forward". But the 1980s were an idealistic time, full of political forward thinking, especially in the arts, and many of our thoughts of how far we'd progressed turned out to be more optimistic than we realised.

LGBT matters, for example, looked like everything was improving in the world in 1984. Look at the top pop acts of 84/85 and you see Boy George, George Michael, Holly Johnson, Elton John, Freddie Mercury and others all tantalisingly on the brink of coming out (a newly-coined term at the time). Sadly the AIDS epidemic put paid to that hope for most people, and it would take some people decades to be able to be honest and out. Russell T Davies's Dream is at least testimony to the changes more recent years have brought.

But BAME casting (no, we didn't say BAME in 1984)? In 1984 Leicester was ahead of the curve.

Look at the BBC's last Midsummer Night's Dream, in 2005, as part of the Shakespeare Re-Told season. Lennie James is Oberon, Mina Anwar is the minor character Flute, and that's about it for minority ethnicity in that Peter Bowker/ Ed Fraiman adaptation.

On the big screen, since 1984, Midsummer Nights Dream has been directed in 1996 by Adrian Noble starring Lindsay Duncan and Alex Jennings. As far as I can see, every single character is white. In 1999 it's done in Hollywood by Michael Hoffman, starring Michelle Pfeiffer and Kevin Kline. Again every face I can see on IMDb is white.

Julie Taymor does slightly better with her 2014 big screen adaptation, casting David Harewood as Oberon, and all her 'Rude Elementals' as black or minority ethnic, but still not up to the levels of the Beeb in 2016 or Leicester Haymarket in 1984.

So what does this tell us about the state of BAME representation on TV? Probably not a great deal. Far better researched pieces have been written on the subject than these casual meanderings (see here an article about a database showing how black and Asian performers are “ghettoised” into second-tier roles, and here about the Multicultural Shakespeare In Britain project for Warwick University). But we can hope that such considerations will continue to be borne in mind, now that they are on the agenda of such a visible player as BBC 1, and not the avant garde forward-thinking of a regional theatre in the distant and idealistic past.

Let's hope what we saw this week doesn't turn out to have been a... well, you can see where I was about to go there.

The Scottish Falsetto Sock Puppet Theatre do Shakespeare at the Edinburgh Fringe August 2016 - see the previews in your town!

★★★★★ "Accessible, contemporary and ridiculous" - Brighton Argus May 2016
★★★★ "Eat your heart out, Olivier" - What's On May 2016 
★★★★ "Comedy genius at work" - Theatre Bath April 2016 

May 19 - Old Joint Stock Birmingham
May 22 - Komedia, Brighton Fringe
May 28 - Ards Puppet Festival, Newtonards
June 9 - Bridgend 
July 3 - Derby Bar One 2pm 
July 8 - Flavel, Dartmouth
July 10 - Tring Festival 
July 14 - Market Harborough Theatre
July 17 - Sheffield New Barrack Tavern 2pm
July 17 - Greater Manchester Fringe , Kings Arms Salford 7pm
July 21 - Barnes Fringe
July 22 - Bedford Fringe
July 30 - Blaenavon Rhymney Brewery
Aug 3 - 29 - 10.30pm The Gilded Balloon, Edinburgh Fringe 

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