Dench plays the queen of the forest as an aging Queen Elizabeth I, stiff and regal in her ruff and pearl-studded bodice, and sporting a wig of tight tangerine curls. She is severe to begin with, rather similar in manner and bearing to her Oscar-winning portrayal of Elizabeth I in Shakespeare in Love. But when Oberon streaks the potent sap across her sleeping eyes, she wakes, not exactly wild with desire, but just a little love-drunk and silly, nuzzling and cuddling up to her Bottom like a child would a teddy bear. Dench is warm and glittering, but the intriguing idea of the monarch's fallible side being exposed is only ever tentatively explored.
Indeed, the production is solidly -- and at times almost ploddingly -- conventional in its approach. While the comic scenes are played broadly, they are performed with much energy and sound timing, particularly by Oliver Chris as Bottom, who manages to convey much even when wearing an elaborate ass's head, complete with waggling ears. The Mechanicals attend to their play-within-a-play with, if not quite gusto, than something close to it.
The rest of the cast is more of a mixed bag. Rachael Stirling is particularly strong as Helena. Her sense of hurt and bafflement is palpable and her husky-voiced insistence on her ugliness has a real rawness and self-loathing to it. Tam Williams and Ben Mansfield, on the other hand, are rather interchangeable as Lysander and Demetrius. Reece Ritchie makes a strangely manic and off-putting Puck, more irritating than impish.
Elizabeth Bury's pared down design makes full use of the Rose's layout, which mirrors that of an Elizabethan theater, turning the pillars into shadowy tree trunks. However, this minimalist approach does little to evoke the necessary sense of magic and wonder. In fact magic is a quality in strangely short supply throughout, despite Dench's endearing turn.
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