After a depressingly inaccessible Romeo and Juliet, the Argo recording of Midsummer Night’s dream opened up like box of riches. This is far and away my favorite recording of the play, and there are some strong contenders in the audio realm (as well as some fine films).
RCA Victor (1954) The success of the RCA recording of Michael Benthall’s 1954 production was one of the inspirations for the Argo Shakespeare series, demonstrating to the British Council that there was a viable market for Shakespeare on audio. Sound couldn’t capture the Old Vic production’s emphasis on dance and visual spectacle, but generous use of Mendelssohn’s incidental music blanketed the recording with German Romantic prettiness. This was distinctly a mixed blessing – the recording is very pleasant to listen to and if you love Mendelssohn (I do), hearing the music in context is a joy. But the acting is undistinguished, angled toward the sweet, smooth tone of the incidental music, and even the great Stanley Holloway, as Bottom, seems almost like he is singing his lines.
Living Shakespeare (1962) Technically speaking, I shouldn’t count the Living Shakespeare series, as they are very seriously abridged – abbreviated even. But a few of these are too good to pass up, and the Midsummer entry is one of them. I’m delighted with the idea of having Kenneth Griffith play Oberon (a hot tempered minor deity with traces of a Welsh accent) and the wonderful Adrienne Corri as Titania. Stanley Holloway repeats Bottom, but goes for laughs this time, and gets them, as does his son Julian as Flute, the bellows-mender). The music, since I’ve introduced that theme, is Musique Concrete composed (assembled?) by Desmond Leslie. Though it’s now as dated as Mendelssohn, it’s also rare enough to be a point of interest, and is strangely evocative.
Caedmon Records (1964) Music is not an issue for the Caedmon recording starring Paul Scofield and his wife Joy Parker as Oberon and Titania. Even the lullaby is chanted. This is a solid, orthodox reading of the play with Scofield’s Oberon regally intoned and the lovers and rustics jammed with familiar star players delivering admirably. Paradoxically, this is my least favorite recording – with all the polish involved, there is nothing memorable. It’s Shakespeare with all the burrs sanded off, and I am literally struggling to find a moment that stands out.
When you’ve listened to enough of these, your radar is extended for any unique point of interest, performances of unusual quality, scenes that pop in some happily peculiar way. Here are some of the surprises I encountered from the Argo Recording (1961).
- After an uneven performance of Mercutio, Anthony White redeems himself with a youthful and impulsive Oberon (why didn’t he give that to Mercutio?). With a vocal attack reminiscent of Ronald Colman as Villon, White is charismatic and raffish. And his Titania, Jill Balcon, is warm and emotionally rich. Ok – they don’t actually have any chemistry to speak of, but they are certainly two candles burning brightly.
- Ian McKellen as Lysander. When Decca advertised the re-release of the series on CD last year, they made a big point of mentioning the participation of Ian McKellen, Derek Jacobi and Trevor Nunn, but of course their participation consisted of the bit parts they played as Cambridge undergraduates. Ian McKellen is a partial exception, and his Lysander is his biggest role in the series. The surprise is that at 22 years of age, he is perfect and fully justifies the prediction of a professional career. Favorite moment – the final argument between the four lovers when things really heat up. McKellen holds his own with Jeannette Sterke as Hermia and the Prunella Scales as Helena, both still in their 20s but with fully developed comic skills.
- Peter Woodthorpe as Bottom the Weaver. Bottom is thick and rather full of himself, and most actors are able to deliver that, but Woodthorpe brings something else to the table, a kind of sly, seditious subtext that drives the performance to a different level. My favorite moment – his little gulp of self-appreciation after the line “I shall call it Bottom’s Dream – because it hath no bottom!”. Just a beautiful, full-throttled piece of acting.
- Miles Malleson as Peter Quince. Malleson plays Quince in the 1964 television version with Benny Hill. Hill was a veteran comic with decades of experience, but his approach to sketch comedy was highly dependent on a stooge dynamic which required him to be paired with older men and women or passive straight men who set up his gags and absorbed his barbs. The rude mechanicals are not a stooge act, and Peter Quince is not a music hall straight man, so Hill seems a bit lost, tentatively making classic Benny moves such as patting Malleson on the head as if he were Jackie Wright or reverting to a broad simpleton act or hanging back altogether. In the Argo recording Malleson has no such restraint and able to give a fine, funny performance, gleefully hamming it up with Woodthorpe in their first scene together and offering a fully rounded portrait of a coarse but well-intentioned amateur author and tradesman. Favorite moment – “bloody, blameful blade”. Enough said.
- Frank Duncan as Theseus. Duncan makes Theseus a brisk, no-nonsense ruler, but he gives his characterization a slight comic spin, and that’s the unexpected part. At the end of Act IV, when he finds the lovers and settles the whole question of who is marrying whom, he suddenly realizes that there is no longer time for The Hunt. He moves on quickly, because he has no time to complain, but you can just barely hear the regret in his voice – that’s the sort of thing I’m in this for.
- Richard Goolden as Puck. In some ways, the most surprising performance of all – Puck is usually played by an adolescent or someone trying to seem like one, a mischievous Peter Pan type. But Goolden, a comic actor of stage and screen going back to the 20s and 30s, plays him as an old, or ageless hobgoblin. He’s Oberon’s servant, but he really pre-dates him and follows his own path of disorder. This interpretation works out better than I would have thought – it’s actually rather edgy, even sinister, and Goolden is excellent, giving drawing the lines out into a kind of Halloween poetry. No favorite moments – it’s all good.
Also worth noting are Joan Hart’s quietly Amazonian Hippolyta and Terrence Hardiman’s palpable disdain as Philostrate.
Oh, I almost forgot. The music – occasional, sombre viols, hunting horns (of course) and a children’s choir to sing Titania’s lullaby.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream with Anthony White, Jill Balcon, Richard Goolden, Peter Woodthorpe, Miles Malleson, Ian McKellen, Prunella Scales, Jeanette Sterke, John Tracy-Phillips, Frank Duncan, Joan Hart and Terrence Hardiman.