Judi Dench, Oliver Chris, Julian Wadham, Susan Salmon, Msimisi Dlamini, William Chubb, Annabel Scholey, Tam Williams, Ben Mansfield, Rachael Stirling, James Laurenson, Leon Williams, William Chubb, Simon Scott, Timothy Speyer, Reece Ritchie, Sophie Scott, Charles Edwards, Richard Keightley, Disun Sookarry
Peter Halls production of A Midsummer Nights Dream at the Rose Theatre in Kingston is being sold primarily on the appearance of Dame Judi Dench as Titania, returning to the role nearly fifty years after she played it for Hall in the 1960s.
Initially it feels like a real coup. Dench plays Titania as Elizabeth I, herself portrayed as the ‘Faerie Queene’ in Edmund Spensers epic poem.
And, of course, Elizabeth I is a role Dench is already associated with following her appearance in Shakespeare in Love, so there is an atmosphere of excitement and anticipation when she first enters dressed in her neck ruff and regal gown.
But though her delivery is strong throughout, her presence creates ripples within the production that are not fully addressed.
Even when she is playing the part of the severe queen in her first scene with Charles Edwards Oberon, there is something of a sparkle to her mood and manner. There is not enough of a contrast in the way Titania behaves before and after she falls under Oberon’s malign enchantment.
Hall has also made Reece Ritchies Puck into a slightly more sinister figure than usual. Decked out like a black baron, there is no sheen of stardust on this Pucks heels, and as a result the comic elements of his performance feel manic and forced. Similarly, the fairies dancing scenes are weak and the minimalist set gives little sense of the magic of the forest.
Titanias encounter with Bottom (played by Green Wings Oliver Chris) is more successful in execution and there is a keen sense of a queen caught off-guard as she finds herself overcome with desire for the ass-headed weaver. These scenes are enhanced by the elaborate asss head that Chris wears, which though largely inanimate (the ears and mouth move a little), still seems capable of expression.
Elsewhere amongst the cast, there are some fine performances from Rachael Stirling as Helena and Ben Mansfield as Demetrius; human and warm, they allow the audience to care about what happens to the plays quartet of young lovers.
The production is at its most successful when the comedy is at full force, as witnessed in the scenes involving Bottom and the Rude Mechanicals. They squeeze as many laughs as they can out of their play-within-a-play without overdoing things or upsetting the balance of the production.
Though I firmly believe that A Midsummer Nights Dream can be far more than a simple comedy (in the popular sense of the word), I wish that this production had concentrated on being just that. The comic elements are by far its strongest aspect, and the attempts to create subtle shifts in the portrayal of key characters paradoxically lead to the production feeling rather more conservative than its interesting premise suggests.