Monday, 22 February 2010

A Midsummer Night's Dream: Dame Judi Dench at the Rose

You'll remember I was hugely excited about this show.

I love A Midsummer Night's Dream. Not only was I in it at school (a very lanky 14-year-old Helena), but I've seen it lots of times, and it nearly always makes a fantastic impression.

So you'll be surprised to hear I was really disappointed in the version of the play I saw at the Rose last week.

Here's my review on Londonist. But, as you can guess, I've got a few more things to add...

On paper, I believed this Midsummer Night's Dream had all the makings of a once-in-a-lifetime theatrical event. Here were these old masters (Mr Hall and Ms Dench), alongside a really exciting-sounding cast about to reveal to us the incredible wisdom of their experience.

Instead, I now understand that this show has been done before. More than once. As pointed out on Radio 4's Front Row by Michael Dobson of Birkbeck College, London. There was a 1962 play; a 1968 film; and a 1980s opera. So this is fourth time around: "slightly diminishing returns" is one of the phrases Mr Dobson uses. You can say that again.

It was pretty static during the usual static-Shakespearean scene 1. No problem, I thought, you can use that for contrast: the staid Athenian court giving way to the unruly, magical forest. But no. It seems standing still, proclaiming your perfectly rounded lines was all the rage in the 1960s. So we get the same again today. I felt like the cast were each holding a very precious jug or ornament called Shakespeare's Priceless Verse, and they had to look after it throughout the play. If they spoke too quickly, or gave a couplet a modern twist for comedy, or dropped a less meaningful quarter phrase, or said something less strongly as an aside, this priceless object would break... Did they rehearse with a metronome? It felt like each of them spoke in the same rhythm. It made the whole thing very difficult to listen to, because everyone (perhaps bar Charles Edward's Oberon) ended up sounding the same.

Costumes. So, it's nice seeing Shakespeare done in Elizabethan dress. It must've been a rare treat back in the 60s when everything was hippyfied. But its standard fayre at The Globe every summer nowadays. And what about the terrible, distracting swords worn by nearly all the men? They clunked around the set, causing the boys to hold onto them with one hand thoughout so they didn't swing around and do someone a mischief ("ay, in the temple, in the town, the field"). Awkward one-handed acting? Not my cup of tea.

I spent some time thinking what it was the Rose Theatre's shiny black stage reminded me of. Was it a dodgy club I've been to somewhere? Or the stage on an 80s version of Top of the Pops? Whatever it was, it was yet another distraction.

Worse than this was Titania's "bower". Now, I've seen a few different bowers in my time: gorgeous, breathtaking pink umbrellas; amazing Sellotape spiderwebs; an odd green pyramid on wheels. This looked like a papier-mâché lump, made in CDT to stand for a cliff in a school production of Our Day Out. The mechanicals had better props in the play within a play. Poor Dame Jude.

Sadder still, I hardly laughed at all. The lovers weren't funny in their falling in and out of love. There was no difference between the register of Demetrius and Lysander; nor really between Helena and Hermia. They were in love in the same way when they were potioned(?) into falling in love; they were cross in the same way when they fought.

And Ben Mansfield, good looking though he is, needs to sort out that hair. This was the second time in a month I've been distracted by a boy's floppy locks requiring constant hand-over-face-and-head flicking which is quite unsuitable for when you're on stage. Jared Leto can get away with it in My So Called Life. But neither Demetrius in AMND or Pisano in Madness in Valencia can. Sorry.

What a shame. Still, practically all the top reviewers were completely enamoured with this production, so maybe I missed something....

I followed the crowd out of the theatre, and it was a while before I realised they were headed to Kingston's multi-storey car park, and the lowly train station was in the other direction. A lonely walk through the pedestrianised shopping area, past Links of London, Past Times(!) and two shops selling art (really; proper actual art) to the station, and I started thinking perhaps I'm just not the Rose Theatre's target audience...

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