fri 22/09/2017

A Midsummer Night's Dream, Rose Theatre | reviews, news & interviews

A Midsummer Night's Dream, Rose Theatre

A Midsummer Night's Dream, Rose Theatre

Judi Dench is a glorious Gloriana in Peter Hall's flat production

Midsummer madness: Judi Dench and Oliver ChrisNobby Clark

It’s the pretext that reunites Judi Dench and Peter Hall to collaborate on Shakespeare’s comedy nearly five decades after they first ventured into the Athenian woods together at the RSC. But the conceit of conflating the fairy queen Titania with Gloriana doesn’t come close to lending Hall’s workaday production the necessary sense of enchantment. It’s performed on Elizabeth Bury’s sparse and decidedly mundane monochrome set, with its cardboard cut-out trees and a shiny black floor, which lacks any flavour of the sylvan and, thumped across by heavy-footed, boot-shod actors, is sometimes distractingly noisy. Where’s the magic?

What little there is comes, unsurprisingly, courtesy of Dench. Immediately recognisable as an imperious Elizabeth I in glittering gown, curled red wig and ruff, she first appears among her courtiers bidding them, with a commanding gaze, to play out Shakespeare’s drama around her for her own diversion. Hall’s staging is often dully static; he reinforces the queen’s status by frequently requiring the rest of the cast to kneel.

The central concept of his interpretation is intriguing at the outset; and it works well enough when Titania is declaring her right to an Indian boy, who, to her, is a pretty piece of property and the offspring of a loyal subject, or issuing instructions to her band of rather earthbound fairies. But it makes little sense when Charles Edwards as Oberon tricks her into amorous obsession with the ass-headed Bottom – a humiliation to which it’s difficult to imagine the monarch deigning to stoop.

Still, Dench is bewitching, by turns statesmanlike, flirtatious, magisterial and sensual. Her words of love to Oliver Chris’s Bottom, transformed with wonderfully furry ears, big bright eyes and a pair of shiny fore-hooves, drip eroticism; her speech of nature in revolt over the rift between fairy king and queen rings with contained anger and anguish. But what surrounds her onstage feels like little more than scanty window-dressing for Dench’s performance.

Of the lovers, only Rachael Stirling makes much impression: there’s a convincing note of heart-sickness and self-disgust to her Helena – though she sounded dangerously hoarse on opening night. Julian Wadham and Susan Salmon betray not a hint of passion as Theseus and Hippolyta, and Salmon’s delivery of the verse is disconcertingly stilted. As for the Mechanicals, a Midlands-accented band led by James Laurenson’s muted Quince, their knockabout clowning is painfully protracted and even the assembled Athenians didn’t appear to be enjoying their eventual display of amateur dramatics much.

Fairy dust may sparkle and dance around Dench’s Titania; the rest is rarely other than ordinary.

OVERLEAF: MORE DENCH ON THEARTSDESK

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