Judi Dench as Titania: sweet-soung, but static. Photo by Nobby Clark
Can you give us a quote from A Midsummer Night’s Dream? No? Neither can we.
But you probably know it’s the one with the donkey’s head, right? Which proves our first point: A Midsummer Night’s Dream is all about plot, not poetry.
Sadly, this new production, directed by the venerable Peter Hall (CBE), has forgotten all about the comedy in the first, and stands, static, in solemn reverence of the latter. When the lady next to us nodded off in the second half, we found ourselves longing for the fresh air, the movement and, bizarrely, the modernity of The Globe. This is a stuffy show, and, while we’d never be rude about our elders and betters, looks and sounds like something directed by a 79 year old.
The big draw is Dame Judi Dench as Titania. In a brief, wordless prologue, she appears as Elizabeth I, snatches a script from a courtier, and motions for the play to begin. There’s no more to Hall’s invention than that. And it sits slightly oddly: the ageing virgin queen wanders around a play whose language is all about the magic of sensual youth, falling in love and matrimony.
What Dench does bring to the play, as you (and Vodafone) all know, is her amazing ability with words. Her speech about the consequences of her quarrel with Oberon sounds truly beautiful; when she says “the human mortals want their winter cheer” we felt like we were in the presence of a (celebrity) queen, who would bestow us with cheer, if we behaved ourselves.
But, with a 75-year-old Queen of the Fairies, we (of course) lose some of the physicality, the sexiness, and the sensual magic of Titania, and the play as a whole. Looking for it elsewhere, we found none of the silliness, the motion, the midsummer magic we craved. Duke Theseus, the quartet of lovers, the brummie Mechanicals, even the fairies seem to have fallen in thrall to their celebrity monarch and take on the same, stagnant devotion to the text: stand still, wear your traditional dress, and e-nun-ci-ate.
Only Oberon, played like a pantomime villain by Charles Edwards, seems to be aware he’s in a comedy.
When we finally get to the rousing play-within-a-play last act (she’d woken up again, you’ll be pleased to hear), and Oliver Chris’s Bottom at last plays for laughs, there’s nothing new, no inventiveness about the comedy.