A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Rose Theatre, Kingston-on-Thames, February 2010

There is an idea that Shakespeare had in mind Queen Elizabeth when writing the part of Titania, queen of the fairies, whose name is based on the Roman goddess Diana. The play was produced in about 1595, at a time when Shakespeare’s company, the Chamberlain’s Men, were regularly playing to Elizabeth’s court and it’s quite likely she saw it. In any event it was a masterstroke of Peter Hall to have Judi Dench play the part of Titania, and I found her entirely convincing. It is nearly fifty years since she first performed it under Hall’s direction with the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1962, but fairies are ancient beings, aren’t they — and fairy queens may be older than most.

The players, who rehearse in the woods and perform at the Duke’s court, were utterly delightful. Oliver Chris as Bottom, with a Brummie accent, was a wonderful ass, and his death scene in the frightful court performance of Pyramus and Thisbe was gloriously over the top. I also thought Timothy Speyer as Snug was superb with his round-eyes and broad Black Country accent, seemingly in awe of his more worldly fellow actors. The hopeless incompetence of the acting troupe was hilarious, and their marvellous comic timing had the audience in stitches.

The lovers were well played, with Annabel Scholey as Hermia, Rachael Stirling as Helena, and I particularly liked Tam Williams and Ben Mansfield as Lysander and Demetrius, the suitors. In the fairy realm, Reece Ritchie was an excellent Puck with his dark features, huge energy and mischievous attitude. The sets and costume designs by Elizabeth Bury, and the lighting by Peter Mumford, were both simple and effective, and the ass’s head gave Bottom an appealing nobility. The Rose Theatre usually has some empty seats, partly because of some poor sight-lines, but Judi Dench has made this a sell-out. If you can get tickets, it’s well worth seeing, not just for her, but because the whole cast gives a wonderful performance. This is the perfect antidote to the winter blues — it’s a riot, and two Americans in front of us were going for the second time that day!

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