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Reviewed by:
  • A Midsummer Night's Dream
  • Coen Heijes
A Midsummer Night's Dream. By William Shakespeare. Directed by Sir Peter Hall. Rose Theatre, Kingston, London. 16 February 2010.

In 1962, Peter Hall directed A Midsummer Night's Dream at the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon, with Judi Dench playing the role of Titania. Six years later, the theatre production was followed by a film, with a virtually unclothed Judi Dench playing Titania in an alluring and erotic fantasy version of the play. Since then, Hall and Dench have worked together regularly, as in Antony and Cleopatra at the National Theatre in 1987, which won Dench the Olivier Award for best actress. In 2010, forty-eight years after their first Midsummer, Sir Peter Hall, by now an internationally acclaimed director of theatre, opera, and film and founding director of the Rose Theatre, Kingston, London, and Dame Judi Dench, the grand dame of British theatre, came together for a new production of A Midsummer Night's Dream. Dench again took up the role of Titania, but instead of focusing on the erotic tensions or the magical world of fantasy, this production consistently emphasized the similarities between Titania and Elizabeth I. It resulted in an earthier and very English setting, highlighting the gentility of love while fully exploiting the lyrical poetry inherent in the words of the play.

The first minutes were stunning. The actors were all onstage, performing a formal dance dressed in Tudor costume to the accompaniment of Elizabethan music. The last to appear on the relatively bare stage was Dench, in a red wig and jewel-encrusted royal garb. This imperious Dame was worlds away from the half-naked wood nymph of the 1960s, now resembling Queen Elizabeth I, a role that had earned Dench the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress in the 1998 movie Shakespeare in Love. Indeed, Hall cast Titania in his latest production as an aging Queen Elizabeth, framing A Midsummer Night's Dream as a play within a play. In a pre-performance interview, he argued that Elizabeth, herself a dancer and musician, would have actually participated in plays, an idea that he explored in this Midsummer. Dench entered as Elizabeth in the nonverbal prologue to the play, the center of attention both for the audience and the other actors, who were kneeling to their beloved Queen. When the actors then fell asleep, Dench left the stage, joining the play later as Titania.

In an obvious parallel to Spenser's Faerie Queene, Titania was dressed as Queen Elizabeth throughout the production and surrounded by a crowd of loyal, young courtiers. As a result of this strong focus on Titania as the stately, grand old dame, many of the erotic tensions that contemporary directors often explore in A Midsummer Might's Dream were noticeably absent in this production, which instead focused on the gentleness and tenderness of love. This softness was most apparent in the scenes between Titania and Bottom, played by a hilarious Oliver Chris dressed as a cuddly donkey. Titania tenderly kissed and stroked him, and although she was under the influence of a love potion, she remained in complete control, emulating Elizabeth, the Virgin Queen, who might have had lovers, but who never would be bound to obey any husband. Her words of love and wonder were more an expression of the many memories of a past filled with love than a foolish surrender to an overwhelming emotion. This was not a lovesick forest queen speaking to a brutish ass, but a mature and experienced woman snuggling with an adored pet and remembering a life filled with love.

Another important potential source of erotic tension in the play is the relation between Oberon and

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Judi Dench (Titania) and Oliver Chris (Bottom) in A Midsummer Night's Dream. (Photo: Nobby Clark.)

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Charles Edwards (Oberon) and Judy Dench (Titania) in A Midsummer Night's Dream. (Photo: Nobby Clark.)

Titania, mirrored in the couple Theseus and Hippolyta, two pairs of roles that are frequently doubled. In this production, however, Theseus and Hippolyta figured more as a...


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