Although every line has been mined for meaning, energized dramatic intent has been left hanging.
It’s a neat conceit — and audience magnet — to make Titania an homage to Queen Elizabeth I, and to nail the point by casting Judi Dench, who won an Oscar for playing that monarch in “Shakespeare in Love.” In Peter Hall’s production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” Dench speaks the verse exquisitely (when not braying like the donkey with whom Titania’s infatuated). But is one directorial idea enough to realize the richness of this multistrand play? Alas, no.
Hall sets up his notion with a wordless prologue accompanied by faux-Tudor music. The actors, wearing designer Elizabeth Bury’s period ruffs, thigh-length boots and paneled gowns, are granted the right to perform by Dench’s queen. That, however, is the last of Hall’s interpolations. From there on in, he follows the text of courtly lovers mingling with the fairies and returning to a play put on by the “mechanicals.”
The only other Elizabethan reference comes via the casting of Oberon. Charles Edwards, the original Hannay in London and Broadway’s “The 39 Steps,” shows immense ease with the verse and impressive physicality. But he cannot escape his far lower status next to national treasure Dench, and his age — he’s 35 years her junior — only exaggerates the problem.
This is a reference to Elizabeth’s much younger suitors, but it does little for the play. It’s a problem when the war between the two of them is supposed to be equal. And when they resolve their fight, Oberon is kissing someone who — in Hall’s Elizabethan terms — could be his grandmother.
Theirs is by no means the only underexamined, generalized relationship. Thinly written Theseus and Hippolyta are tough roles to pull off, but Julian Wadham and Susan Salmon behave like they’ve barely met. That may be Hall’s point, but if so, it needs to be made more dramatically.
Characterizations seem to have happened in isolation, as if the actors have been left too much to their own devices. Even the scenes between Dench’s Titania and Oliver Chris’ Bottom play as merely amusing — as if no one bothered to search for in-depth, developed ideas.
Rachael Stirling is a nicely flummoxed and increasingly distressed Helena, but the other lovers make little individual impression. The men in particular seem interchangeable. Again, if that’s the point, it’s made at the expense of audience engagement. Their squabbling and imploring is impassioned, but neither painful nor hilarious enough.
The mechanicals, too, are middle of the road. Until the final play-within-a-play, Hall fails to weld them into a convincing group. Too many of them milk comedy from Birmingham accents in lieu of detailed character work.
Nor are the proceedings particularly magical. Bury’s black silhouettes of trees on a shiny black marble floor lack mystery, and even with Peter Mumford’s starlike bulbs in the trees and dappled leafy light, there’s not enough atmosphere. As Puck, Reece Ritchie takes the “mad sprite” line literally, overplaying it with energetic leaps and squeals at every opportunity.
The production’s major success is its clarity, illustrating Hall’s emphasis on analyzing language. But “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” one of Shakespeare’s earlier plays, is so popular partly because of its relatively straightforward language. The overall feeling of this depressingly capable production is that although every line has been mined for meaning, energized dramatic intent has been left hanging.