Friday, February 26, 2010

Peter Brook's Midsummer Night's Dream (1970): Three Rare Clips

Brook by Brook: Portrait Intime. Dir. Simon Brook. 2001. La Tragedie d’Hamlet. Dir. Peter Brook. Perf. Adrian Lester, Shantala Shivalingappa, and Scott Handy. ARTE France Développment. DVD. ARTE France, 2001.

Among the rarest of the rarities—The Holy Grail (or one of the Holy Grails) of Shakespeare production history study—is Peter Brook's 1970 stage production for the Royal Shakespeare Theatre. It was enormously innovative, it changed everything, it influenced everybody, and it's impossible to find. Indeed, knowledge of the actual performance seems almost gnostic—a little like the way people who went to Woodstock (or claim to have gone to Woodstock) speak about that experience.

I just learned that the staging was never filmed in its entirety. Only a few short segments were filmed (by the BBC).

Therefore, we must make do with clips from documentaries on more general topics. For example, Oberon's "I know a bank" speech is available—but (to my knowledge) only in a documentary on Peter Book by Simon Brook (which is itself something like a special feature—a very lengthy special feature—on the DVD of Brook's Hamlet).

I know a bank where the wild thyme blows,
Where oxlips and the nodding violet grows,
Quite over-canopied with luscious woodbine,
With sweet musk-roses and with eglantine:
There sleeps Titania sometime of the night,
Lull’d in these flowers with dances and delight;
And there the snake throws her enamell’d skin,
Weed wide enough to wrap a fairy in:
And with the juice of this I’ll streak her eyes,
And make her full of hateful fantasies. (II.i.249-68)

A Midsummer Night’s Dream: What to Make of Magic. Staging Dreams: Casting and Interpreting Shakespeare. Dir. Perf. 2004. DVD. Films for the Humanities and Sciences, 2004.

This clip is from A Midsummer Night’s Dream: What to Make of Magic, part of the Staging Dreams: Casting and Interpreting Shakespeare series available through Films for the Humanities & Sciences. And you should definitely ask your local library to purchase the DVD.

It is a bit of a disappointment that the clips contained in the documentary are so fragmented and so frequently presented without audible dialogue (the narrator's voice is frequently dubbed over the actor's lines). Still, we get a sense of the costumes and the staging here—in some ways, it's better than a gallery of production stills:

Speaking of production stills, Touchstone Exhibitions provides a marvelous resource (even if it is a bit clunky).

“Shakespeare: Drama’s DNA.” Perf. Richard Eyre, Peter Brook, and Judy Dench. Dir. Roger Parsons. Changing Stages: 100 Years of Theatre. Episode 1. BBC. 5 November 2000. Videocassette. Films for the Humanities, 2001.

I have written a bit on this bit before, but, for the sake of convenience, I'm providing the clip on this post as well.

The clip is from a lengthy documentary series on the development of the stage in England. It's quite well done—but I will always gravitate toward the segments on Shakespeare. In this case, I appreciate the provision of elements from Peter Brook's production:

Click below to purchase Brook by Brook from
(and to support Bardfilm as you do so).



Adaryn said...

I just happened upon this blog post from last year, so I'm hoping you're still able to receive updates from it. I'm writing a thesis on MND, regarding liminality and social constructs; since I am apparently unable to find a copy of Peter Brook's 1970 production, I was wondering if you could direct me to any relevant academic articles that have done a study of his production? Someone advised me that any study of his 1970 production would give me some insight on the topic at present. If you have any input, I would be incredibly appreciative. Thanks!

kj said...

Thanks for the comment! I'll be e-mailing you with a few suggestions in a day or two.

Take care!


Tony B. said...

I came across your blog about Peter Brook's Midsummer Night's Dream while working. I am doing research for a documentary film getting made on the Brooklyn Academy of Music and we have been trying to locate video footage of Peter Brook's Midsummer Night's Dream.
I have the Brook by Brook DVD getting sent to me via Netflix so I can view it, but have had no luck whatsoever in trying to locate the other two sources you provided, "What to Make of Magic" (Open University, 1998) and "Changing Stages: 100 Years of Theater" (BBC, 2000, hosted by Sir Richard Eyre of Royal National Theater)
Would you happen to have any suggestions on where to locate these titles, any help would be greatly appreciated!

kj said...

Thanks, Tony B., for the comment. The project sounds interesting!

Those other two films are available through Films for the Humanities and Sciences. The links are at the very end of the post.

They're enormously expensive, but you may find that a library near you has them in its holdings. Actually, some colleges and universities have a system that allows on-line streaming of material from Films for the Humanities and Sciences, which is a great deal.

Take care, and good luck on the project!


Anonymous said...

I was in Stratford in 1970 and saw this production. It changed the way I imagined literature...and lingers, even today. I had no idea then I would become a literature professor; but am certain the breadth of this vision shared its generous perspectives with me.

kj said...

Thanks, Anonymous, for your first-hand evidence of Brook's enormous impact.

Take care!


Anonymous said...

I saw this production several times, both at Stratford and the Aldwych. It set me on a career as a theatre journalist and was the best MND I ever saw - although the John Caird 1989 was mind blowing too. The sights and the sounds of the Brook remain with me even today.
At the interval, and at the end, the cast threw carnations and confetti (paper plates!) into the audience: I managed to catch and keep both.
There was so much that was so innovative and so magical about this production. John Kane and Alan Howard were outstanding, and to declaim the verse so wonderfully when on stilts, or suspended in mid air and being lifted and dropped through the air is still remarkable. Their stage confidence was amazing. Frances de la Tour was exceptional too, as was David Waller. Magical, miond expanding, heart warming and a production never forgotten by anyone that saw it. Audiences went mad for it, and reaction at the end was always amazing. And yet...from the John Caird....Richard McCabe's Puck remain unparalled. (John Kane went on to write many sitcoms for the BBC including, I seem to remember, Terry and June. Liz Gilbey

kj said...

Thank you so much, Anonymous! It's tremendous to hear the depth of influence and remembrance that this show inspired.

Would that I had been there—it would have much amazed me!

Thanks again!


Bardfilm is normally written as one word, though it can also be found under a search for "Bard Film Blog." Bardfilm is a Shakespeare blog (admittedly, one of many Shakespeare blogs), and it is dedicated to commentary on films (Shakespeare movies, The Shakespeare Movie, Shakespeare on television, Shakespeare at the cinema), plays, and other matter related to Shakespeare (allusions to Shakespeare in pop culture, quotes from Shakespeare in popular culture, quotations that come from Shakespeare, et cetera).

Unless otherwise indicated, quotations from Shakespeare's works are from the following edition:
Shakespeare, William. The Riverside Shakespeare. 2nd ed. Gen. ed. G. Blakemore Evans. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1997.
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