Lysander loves Hermia, and Hermia loves Lysander. Helena loves Demetrius; Demetrius used to love Helena but now loves Hermia. Egeus, Hermia's father, prefers Demetrius as a suitor, and enlists the aid of Theseus, the Duke of Athens, to enforce his wishes upon his daughter. According to Athenian law, Hermia is given four days to choose between Demetrius, life in a nunnery, or a death sentence. Hermia, ever defiant, chooses to escape with Lysander into the surrounding forest.
Complications arise in the forest. Oberon and Titania, King and Queen of Fairies, are locked in a dispute over a boy whom Titania has adopted. Oberon instructs his servant Puck to bring him magic love drops, which Oberon will sprinkle on the Queen's eyelids as she sleeps, whereupon Titania will fall in love with the first creature she sees upon awakening. Meanwhile, Helena and Demetrius have also fled into the woods after Lysander and Hermia. Oberon, overhearing Demetrius's denouncement of Helena, takes pity upon her and tells Puck to place the magic drops upon the eyelids of Demetrius as well, so that Demetrius may fall in love with Helena. Puck, however, makes the mistake of putting the drops on the eyelids of Lysander instead. Helena stumbles over Lysander in the forest, and the spell is cast; Lysander now desires Helena and renounces a stunned Hermia.
In the midst of this chaos, a group of craftsmen are rehearsing for a production of "Pyramus and Thisbe," to be played for the Duke at his wedding. Puck impishly casts a spell on Bottom to give him the head of a donkey. Bottom, as luck would have it, is the first thing Titania sees when she awakens; hence, Bottom ends up being lavishly kept by the Queen. Oberon enjoys this sport, but is less amused when it becomes apparent that Puck has botched up the attempt to unite Demetrius and Helena. Oberon himself anoints Demetrius with the love potion and ensures that Helena is the first person he sees; however, Helena understandably feels that she is now being mocked by both Demetrius and Lysander (who is still magically enamored of her).
Finally, Oberon decides that all good sports must come to an end. He puts the four lovers to sleep and gives Lysander the antidote for the love potion so that he will love Hermia again when they all wake up. Next, Oberon gives Titania the antidote, and the King and Queen reconcile. Theseus and Hippolyta then discover Lysander, Hermia, Helena, and Demetrius asleep in the forest. All return to Athens to make sense of what they think is a strange dream. Likewise, Bottom returns to his players, and they perform "Pyramus and Thisbe" at the wedding feast (which has since become a wedding of three couples). As everyone retires, fairies perform their blessings and Puck delivers a tender epilogue soliloquy
Hippolita, Queen of the Amazons – Susan Salmon
Egeus, father of Hermia – William Chubb
Hermia, in love with Lysander – Annabel Scholey
Helena, in love with Demetrius – Rachel Stirling
Demetrius – Ben Mansfield
Lysander – Tam Williams
Oberon, King of the Fairies – Charles Edwards
Titania, his Queen – Judi Dench
Puck, a Sprite – Reece Ritchie
Fairy – Sophie Scott
Bottom, a Weaver – Oliver Chris
Flute, a bellows-mender – Leon Williams
Snug, a joiner – Timothy Speyer
Quince, a carpenter – James Laurenson
Starveling, a Tailor – William Chubb
Snout, a Tinker – Simon Scott
Set & Costume Design - Elizabeth Bury
Lighting Design - Peter Mumford
Sound Design - Gregory Clarke
Music - Mick Sands
Movement - Laila Diallo
Fight Director - Kate Waters
The Rose is, anyway, a fairly soulless place, plonked in a slightly naff suburb of London that has pretensions of grandeur, so it’s the perfect home for this fairly soulless production. Two years after opening, the building still looks unfinished – there are some nice unplastered walls covered in pockmarks dotted around the foyer for you to look at when you’ve finished gazing up at the heating and lighting ducts hanging unconcealed from the ceiling. There is no proper counter space, so programmes and odd bits of production-related detritus are sold from a wobbly table. There are obviously no staff lockers as one of the usherettes still had her shopping with her. The suspended staircase, framed in what looks like luxury-version chicken wire, sways disconcertingly when used simultaneously by more than three people. Inside the shockingly cold auditorium, sightlines for the poor sod who happens to be sitting in the end seat of a row (me) are partially blocked by the staircase newel posts and the safety bars at the bottom. Those in the upper circle are so near the roof that you can hear the electronic spotlights hanging from it moving or focussing – although I admit that the first couple of times it happened, I thought it was a sound effect bumblebee flying through the wood. Anyway, I digress.
The production is quite basic, and feels slightly cheap. There’s no scenery, unless you count some cut-out trees which appear from behind the columns of a black, three-tier gallery-cum-gantry honeycombed with staircases (which seems to be a permanent part of the building structure). Titania’s “bank, where the wild thyme blows” is a little hummock of moulded plastic, just big enough to accommodate a reclining Dame, which can be wheeled around where necessary (the bank, not the Dame). If the Queen of the Fairies does indeed slumber here sometime of the night, then she’s in for a pretty cramped, undignified forty winks. She’s going to get wet, too, for its not “over-canopied with luscious woodbine” or indeed over-canopied with anything. It’s distinctly under-canopied, in fact.
Costumes too, in the main, look a bit skimped. La Dench, as befits her status, comes off quite well, but the designer misses a trick by not incorporating the great circular collar-pieces that you see in portraits of Elizabeth I and which look so much like enormous lace wings. Dench’s Elizabeth/Titania doesn’t sprout these until her final scene, and even then they’re pretty tame. Oberon, however, gets the full Gay Walter Raleigh treatment in an amazing high collar, black jerkin and trunks encrusted with glittery spiders webs and black floor length cloak striped with midnight and mist. The four lovers and the mechanicals look like they have been costumed from a big hamper labelled “generic Shakespeare”. There is a song in The Shakespeare Review about the complaints of three actors who specialise in playing Titania’s fairies which is about all the naff costumes they have been given over the years; the refrain runs “We wish we had wings, how we wish we had wings”, and I can imagine the fairies in this production feeling exactly the same way – by dressing them (both males and females) as Elizabeth’s male courtiers, their presence in the play is considerably diminished and they remain resolutely earthbound. If it were me, I would feel short-changed.
Performance-wise, it’s a distinctly uneven romp through the woods. Dench is, of course, as wonderful as you would expect. Her rendition of the Titania’s great speech about the aberrant weather conditions which the discord between her and Oberon have spawned was so beautifully and sensitively handled that it was worthy of its own round of applause. Charles Edwards, however, seemed to be playing Oberon as a slightly faded, somewhat camp matinee idol. Julian Wadham plays Thesus without an ounce of characterisation; this Duke is an affable, slightly tweedy English gentleman who bears a remarkable resemblance to Julian Wadham. Reece Ritchie was so overbearingly manic as Puck that I itched to make a fairy ring with my hands and girdle them about his neck for forty minutes. The rest of the fairies, to quote somebody else’s review "seem to have fallen in thrall to their celebrity monarch and take on the same, stagnant devotion to the text: stand still, wear your traditional dress, and e-nun-ci-ate".
To quote my own review of Much Ado About Nothing at the Open Air Theatre Regent’s Park of last year, "Ben Mansfield was everything you want in a Shakespearan prince [although in Dream he’s not playing a prince, obviously] - floppy haired, doe-eyed. lean, hairy and gorgeous ; the kind of man that makes me want to rack up a gram and shout to my obedient flunkies "Have him stripped, washed, handcuffed and sent to my tent. Actually, no - don't strip him; I'll do it myself. With my teeth". Quite honestly I was enjoying watching him too much to actually take much note of his acting (pauses to wipe dribble off the keyboard)." And this holds. Rachel Stirling looks, sounds and acts like a younger version of Diana Rigg, which is handy, because she’s Diana Rigg’s daughter. She displays a fine sense of the absurdity and comedy in the role of Helena, but also a strangely butch haircut.
A relative unknown, Oliver Chris, takes on the pivotal role of Bottom, and I can imagine his initial disbelief (turning to abject horror and then near-hysterical self-doubt) when told “Oh, you’ve got to show Judi Dench your Bottom eight times a week”. Amazingly, however, he takes on this Grande Dame of the Stage and comes within an ass’s whisker of matching her performance. He’s a much younger Bottom than usual, full of a young man’s braggadocio and with a great sense of comedy timing. In fact, apart from Dench herself, he’s the best thing in the entire play. His Pyramus in the “play within a play” is the funniest I’ve ever seen.
So don’t believe all the hype you’ve heard about this production. It may be good enough for the people of Kingston but its by no means a landmark production. Like Bottom, Flute, Starveling and their friends, its all a bit mechanical.
In 1935, A Midsummer Night's Dream got the Hollywood treatment; the wonderful Olivia de Havilland played Hermia, Dick Powell was her Lysander, James Cagney made an unlikely Bottom and Mickey Rooney was Puck. Although most of the film was awful, there are moments of true Hollywood magic, particularly this section which pulled out all the stops in showing the wood outside Athens as a dark, enchanted and possibly dangerous place, peopled by all sorts of strange creatures - just as Shakespeare intended. And not as Peter Hall depicts it.