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A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
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The last time Judi Dench played Titania for Peter Hall (in a mud-splattered 1969 film) she was virtually naked. And Diana Rigg played Helena.

Sir Peter’s Rose Theatre revival sees Dame Judi, again as Titania, in full Elizabethan fig as a sprightly red-headed Gloriana, and Dame Di’s daughter, Rachael Stirling, as a husky-voiced, lissome and sexually adventurous Helena.

In both cases, the performances are infinitely superior to their first versions, and 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 director now has the full measure of the Mozartian elements in the comedies; this Dream is presented as a courtly commission of the Queen who inspects the playbill in a pre-echo of the last act entertainment on the lovers’ wedding day at night.

The arrangement harks back to productions of this play before Peter Brook’s radical RSC white box gymnasium version and it ignores the now common doubling Brook introduced of Titania with Hippolyta and Oberon with Theseus.

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 Dame Judi 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.

You might have expected the erotic content of the donkey in the bower scenes to be minimal, but Dench of course allows the verse to do the work and the encounter has never seemed sexier, or more charming: the Virgin Queen’s on holiday from her duties with Charles Edward’s stiff-backed Oberon, and the confusions in the forest are wrought with spring-heeled effervescence by Reece Ritchie’s mischievous Puck.

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.


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