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Review Round-up: Dench Back in Dream Land

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Judi Dench faced the London critics last night (15 February) for the first time since the Donmar's Madame de Sade, a production that produced a less than kindly critical response (See Review Round-up, 19 Mar 2009).

Her latest stage outing seems a safer critical bet; a reunion with director Peter Hall on an Elizabethan-set production of A Midsummer Night's Dream at the Rose Theatre, Kingston.

The production comes nearly 50 years after Dench and Hall first tackled the play at the RSC with Dench in the same role (Titania). Among those joining her in the cast this time round are Oliver Chris (Bottom), Annabel Scholey (Hermia), Rachael Stirling (Helena) and Charles Edwards (Oberon).

Sure enough, this morning's reviews marked a shining return to form as critics fell over themselves to praise Dench's performance. Assessments ranged from the short and sweet (“regal and lyrical”) to the long and lofty (“Dench can send a thrill of wonder through a line of Shakespeare like wind rippling through a field of wheat”). Plenty of acclamations also went Hall's way - still “sprinkling the magic dust” after nearly 60 years in the business – and to Dench's fellow cast members, including Oliver Chris's “especially satisfying” Bottom. 

  • Michael Coveney on Whatsonstage.com (four stars) – “Peter Hall’s production pullulates not only with wonderful verse speaking in this most musical of Shakespearean comedies, but also with a wisdom and spiritual generosity that can only come from age and experience … The wide, inflexible stage in Elizabeth Bury’s design at first resembles an art deco hotel lobby, but Peter Mumford’s lighting soon creates a more suitable woodland boskiness and foliage. Just to hear Judi Dench discharge the great speech of forgeries of jealousy and mortals wanting their winter cheer is to be truly blessed in the theatre; her artistry irradiates the rest of the cast, setting a standard that even the mechanicals aspire to in their cumbersome rehearsals. James Laurenson is their stage manager as Quince, while Oliver Chris’ large bully Bottom sees himself, hilariously, as a thespian jack of all parts … Annabel Scholey’s Hermia is a well observed study in blind devotion, while Tam Williams and Ben Mansfield are also careful to differentiate between the hot-headed Lysander and a rather priggish Demetrius. A conventional revival, maybe, but far too good to be snooty about.”
  • Michael Billington in the Guardian (four stars) – “Judi Dench is back as Shakespeare's fairy queen and her performance illuminates Peter Hall's revival, reminding us just why she is a great actor … Dench has the supreme ability to give weight to every word she utters … I've never seen a Titania more vocally and spiritually enraptured by the transformed Bottom. Dench's voice seems to caress the air … Dench simply conveys the ecstasy and ardour of a brief, if misplaced, passion … Charles Edwards is a particularly fine Oberon who brings out the sadistic delight with which the fractious immortal torments the fairy queen … Edwards conveys a proper sense of guilt at the effectiveness of his ruse … he standout member of the quartet is Rachael Stirling who makes the abused Helena a paranoid, quivering figure with a real sense of self loathing … 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.”
  • Paul Taylor in the Independent (four stars) – “Peter 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 … It must be marvellous for the younger members of this great company to have such a great speaker of verse to emulate. Judi Dench can send a thrill of wonder through a line of Shakespeare like wind rippling through a field of wheat … Oliver Chris is comic perfection as Bottom. He's young and he has the looks that could make him a leading man and he's adorable in his fresh-faced keenness … 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 … Leon Williams brings the house down … A great evening.”
  • Henry Hitchings in the Evening Standard (four stars) – “Judi Dench is reprising her role as the queen of the fairies, with Peter Hall again sprinkling the magic dust on Shakespeare’s most enchanting comedy … Dench is both regal and lyrical, communicating an affecting musicality …  Elizabeth Bury’s visual effects are deftly calculated … Rachael Stirling is excellent, too, as  Helena, achy and pining, but also saucy … The men, it’s fair to say, are not as strong as the women … Oliver Chris is especially satisfying as Bottom, the bungling weaver … In the end it’s the comedy that speaks loudest in this enjoyably fluent interpretation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Yet beneath the absurdities and physical frolics, it has a wintry quality that’s genuinely surprising.”
  • Benedict Nightingale in The Times (four stars) – “Dame Judi gives a fine performance … Peter Hall sees Titania as the Elizabeth I of roughly the year 1595: an ageing monarch with the passions of a much younger woman … At the start she is in all her pomp, silently ordering bowing courtiers to begin a performance of the Dream itself. Then, without changing her spangled dress, her Titania is bemoaning the treacherous weather and bringing queenly steel to the business of reproaching Charles Edwards’s elegant grandee of an Oberon. But it’s when she falls for Oliver Chris’s transformed Bottom that Dench is at her hilarious best … The lovers’ crazed confusions are nicely played, especially by Rachael Stirling, a Helena who can yearn as well as expostulate. And the rude mechanicals are excellent fun, ruled by Chris’s Bottom, who clearly thinks he’s the new Richard Burbage and prolongs Pyramus’s death so inventively that, even when prone and in her lap, he manages to upstage Leon Williams’s expiring Thisbe … Reece Ritchie gives us a Puck who runs, leaps, somersaults and squeals with infectiously mischievous glee, but I did have a doubt about Julian Wadham’s Theseus.”
  • Charles Spencer in the Daily Telegraph (four stars) - “To be frank I thought it must be a joke when I first heard that Dame Judi Dench was to star as Titania in Peter Hall’s new staging of A Midsummer Night’s Dream … But I underestimated Dame Judi’s greatness as an actress and Hall’s formidable skill as a director. This is one of the most lucid and beautifully spoken productions of the Dream I have ever seen … Her verse speaking is wonderful, of course, bringing every nuance in the text to life, so that there are passages when you seem to be hearing familiar lines as if for the first time. But what this performance will be remembered for is its wondrous humour and warmth. When Titania falls head over heels in love with the weaver Bottom, who has been transformed into an ass, Dench glows with the radiance of a woman truly in love.”

    - Theo Bosanquet & Alex Mangini

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