Stella Gonet was the first Titiana I saw; I remember being faintly shocked by her randy Fairy Queen, who tussled loudly with a man named Bottom in a huge, swinging hammock. That was at the Barbican in 1995 and, as a young girl, I was frightened a little by this prowling Fairy Queen; she also lent the play a veneer of sophistication and ‘adultness’ that somehow pushed me away.
Yet A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a play that is obsessed with young love and young people. This is perhaps why Gonet’s horny Titania upset – she felt too grown up. Judi Dench, now in her 70s, might not be the obvious choice to solve this problem, yet her performance is remarkably youthful, innocent and free.
Dench’s Titiana is both regal and ridiculous. In the opening scene, Dench is a dead-ringer for Elizabeth I, processing smoothly above and amongst her subjects. But the clues to her later transformation are there from the start: though she sweeps about in a majestic gown, two white forms sprout up from behind her dress, faintly reminiscent of angel’s wings. Once under Oberon’s spell and trapped by Bottom’s questionable charms, Dench’s early commanding presence melts away and her Titiana dissolves into a giddy school-girl, in love for the first time.
Dench abandons herself to the role and finds real innocence in her performance. Everything about her feels young: her smile is impossibly wide and her laugh guttural and unconscious as she fawns over her ass, clinging onto his furry form and affectionately joining in with his snorting laughter. To see one of our finest, most experienced actors drool over a donkey only notches up the silliness of these scenes, as well as highlighting Shakespeare’s talent for conjuring up near-impossible fantasies, yet somehow making them believable on-stage.
Dench’s playfulness is systematic of the light, whimsical feel to Peter Hall’s absorbing Rose Theatre production. The show is underpinned by a desire to have fun with Shakespeare; a quality that is sometimes lost in more ‘complicated’, modern-day productions. Hall achieves this playful feeling by encouraging exuberant but unfussy performances from his actors and creating little interference on-stage. The floor is black, the props kept to a minimum and the scenery sketched in with some clever lighting; these simple stage effects allow the piece to skip along at quite a pace and prevent any feeling of formality creeping in.
The smooth staging and unfettered performances mean the show often feels more like a drama festival, a family Christmas schtick, than a Shakespeare production. This is just as it is should be and means that Bottom and his amateur actor pals, rehearsing a sublimely awful play to perform to Theseus, fit in seamlessly with the overall production. In fact, whereas sometimes this framework involving Bottom and his pals can feel a little stiff - tagged onto a more formal, ethereal Shakespeare play – here, this paltry but plucky group of performers set the tone for this bubbling, high-energy production.
Chris Jones as Bottom absolutely owns the stage, which juts into the audience and allows him to grab hold of the audience instantly. It is a performance packed with natural comic flourishes – silly gestures, winks, lewd noises, whatever feels right at the time – from an actor unfazed and inspired by Shakespeare. From amateur actor to ass, he is an explosive and addictive presence on-stage and when his slow-mo death finally arrives, the audience is reluctant to let him go.
Bottom is obviously comic gold, but there are nuggets lurking everywhere in this production and none more sparkling than Charles Edwards’ Oberon. Looking and sounding like Dr Who in fancy dress, Edwards plays the Fairy King as a limelight-hogging Queen. Edwards sulks, struts, gossips and meddles his way through the play in a vibrantly camp performance, which works well with Dench’s giddy transformation.
There are notably tougher, more complicated roles in this play and Rachael Stirling, though she is an undoubtedly powerful actress, feels slightly out of synch with the show. Her Helena is the character on the wrong side of young love and her absolute submittal to the dashing Demetrius sometimes feels too painful in this relatively painless production.
Reese Ritchie also has some problems as Puck – he can cackle and pounce across stage as much as he likes, but his Puck is missing some punch. It is a gem of a role – open to bold, unique interpretations – but Ritchie misses the mark, hovering somewhere between frightening and fun.
That the two palpably darker roles stutter slightly is perhaps indicative of a production that, although deeply enjoyable, can feel a touch light in places. But does that really matter in a play that ends with a spectacularly awful amateur production, which is largely there for big, belly laughs? This is a play that both celebrates and laughs at the illusion of theatre and the illusion of young love - something that Hall’s production recognises and recreates quite wonderfully.
Till 20 March