- From The Times
- February 16, 2010
- Benedict Nightingale
- From The Times
- February 16, 2010
- Benedict Nightingale
(Rated 4/ 5 )
Dame Judi is a tip-top Titania – and Bottom’s not bad either
By Paul Taylor// Dame Judi Dench as Titania? My first thought when I heard that she was to play the role again for Peter Hall at the age of 75 and some 38 years since she first played it for him in Stratford was faintly ungallant. This Queen of the Fairies is famously tricked into becoming infatuated with a donkey – beasts who have never been a byword for being under-endowed in the groin area. Judi Dench portrayed Titania a second time for Hall in his 1968 movie of the play and in the stills from that she is pretty much naked apart from some long Godiva-like hair strategically arranged. So my worry was that it would be rather embarrassing having such a senior DBE as the subject of an embarrassingly erotic prank.
I shouldn’t have worried. Unfolding on the lozenge-shaped open stage of the Rose Theatre at Kingston, Hall’s latest production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream is exquisitely well judged in its light-footed, lucid, poetically persuasive, wonderfully funny and brilliantly well-spoken way. The idea is that Dench is Elizabeth I who evidently fancies moonlighting as the Queen of the Fairies in addition to her capacity as Queen of England. In a short wordless prequel, she sweeps into a room where the Elizabethan actors are preparing, snatches up a part-script and signals that the performance proper may begin.
It must be marvellous for the younger members of this great company to have such a great speaker of verse to emulate. Dench can send a thrill of wonder through a line of Shakespeare like wind rippling through a field of wheat. And indeed a respect for uncynical wonder is one of the, so to say, Hall-marks of this production in which Julian Wadham gives a lovely mandarin wit and weight to Theseus’s doctrine that the guileless endeavour of the rude mechanicals (a terrific Brummie Crazy Gang of idiosyncratic physical types here) is not something to sneer at.
Oliver Chris is comic perfection as Bottom. He’s young and he has the looks that could make him a leading man (very far from always the case in the casting of this role) and he’s adorable in his fresh-faced keenness.
When he comes round from his dream, this Bottom has a panicky rummage in his cod-piece and crosses himself in relief that the equipment is still there and of the previous dimensions. Not that you feel that there has been much hanky panky in that department with Dench’s Titania. The Queen’s doting on this donkey is more at the girlish devotion to My Little Pony end of the spectrum than the cross-species carnality you get in some productions. She hugs him tight as one might want to embrace, say, Lassie.
Each of the play’s worlds is delectably realised – from the otherworldliness of the fairies, with Charles Edwards doing a nice send up of a square-jawed matinee idol with supernatural touches as Oberon and Reece Ritchie an eruptive, manic pretty boy as Puck. For once, the young lovers all seem like individuals that you want to root for and the rude mechanicals could scarcely be bettered. The Lion is a little bald, bewildered chap and Leon Williams brings the house down with a Thisbe whose high-pitched oration over Bottom’s dead Pyramus does not gain in dignity because, repeatedly letting the weighty bulk of him slip from her lap, she keeps having to haul him back on to her knee. I loved it when she has to use her wooden sword to shift one of her hefty cream plaits before she can dig it into her bosom. A great evening.
Transforming love … Oliver Chris and Judi Dench in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Photograph: Tristram Kenton
Judi Dench is no stranger to Titania. She played the role at school in York in the 1940s and on stage and film for Peter Hall in the 1960s. Now she is back as Shakespeare’s fairy queen and her performance illuminates Hall’s revival, reminding us just why she is a great actor.
- A Midsummer Night’s Dream
- Rose Theatre,
- Until 20 March
- Box office:
0871 230 1552
Hall’s main innovation is to suggest a parallel between Titania and Elizabeth I: a somewhat tendentious idea since Shakespeare’s play is a hymn to marital fecundity and Theseus pointedly suggests the rose distilled is happier than that which withers on the «virgin thorn.» But, although Dench makes a brief appearance as Elizabeth as if sanctioning a court entertainment, the regal comparison is largely irrelevant. What really matters is Dench’s supreme ability to give weight to every word she utters.
In Titania’s great speech on the disastrous consequences of climate change, your hear Dench’s voice perceptibly harden when she tells how «the childing autumn, angry winter change their wonted liveries.» I’ve also never seen a Titania more vocally and spiritually enraptured by the transformed Bottom. Dench’s voice seems to caress the air as she breathily cries «I pray thee, gentle mortal, sing again.» And, after a night spent with the ass, Dench skips and skitters around with post-coital glee and giggles delightedly at her loved one’s every jest. Without any of the physical explicitness you sometimes find in modern productions, Dench simply conveys the ecstasy and ardour of a brief, if misplaced, passion.
Dench brings her special aura to a perfectly good, classical production that seems most at ease with the fairies. Charles Edwards is a particularly fine Oberon who brings out the sadistic delight with which the fractious immortal torments the fairy queen. He slavers over the idea of streaking her eyes to make her full of «hateful fantasies» and gloats over the prospect of her waking next to some «vile thing». But, in a play that is all about spiritual transfiguration, Edwards conveys a proper sense of guilt at the effectiveness of his ruse.
The lovers, meanwhile, are decently played with due emphasis on their verbal coils rather than physical knockabout. But the standout member of the quartet is Rachael Stirling who makes the abused Helena a paranoid, quivering figure who announces «I am as ugly as a bear» with a real sense of self-loathing. She is also excellent in the battle with Annabel Scholey’s Hermia.
My main reservation concerns the mechanicals. Hall might have made more of «these hard-handed men that work in Athens hence» by emphasising their particular crafts and occupations. But there is a very assured Bottom from Oliver Chris who has all the bumptious geniality of the star amateur actor. In short, this is a good, well-spoken Dream, played in Elizabethan dress, that reminds one that this is a play about physical and spiritual transformation.
But although many of the parts, not least Julian Wadham’s shrewd, pragmatic Theseus, are well played, it is Dame Judi who supplies the necessary magic. And, although she is be-ruffed and red-wigged, it has nothing to do with Titania’s supposed resemblance to Elizabeth I. It is all to do with the ability to invest the language with passionate emotion so that when Dench says of the ass «O, how I love thee» the words linger longingly in the air. That’s what I call great acting.
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