(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.