Let me interrupt myself at the beginning to say no one has been better served by turning their hair silver and hacking it short, nor by laying on the eyeliner. Dame Judi, I salute your flawless slide into fashion babedom, which from what I can tell started past the age of 65. But then slide isn't quite accurate, either, it's more like that "out-bursting of a trodden star" that Thomas Lovell Beddoes talks about. May we all be trod on similarly, dears, and burst out with such tremendous fun and flair.
(Again, don't be mistaken, this is not a review.)
Now here's a long story in 10 sentences: When Kristin Scott Thomas pulled out of A Little Night Music, I figured somebody owed me something, and that something turned out to be Judi Dench playing Titania in Peter Hall's production of A Midsummer Night's Dream at the Rose Theatre in Kingston, just outside London. I ordered my Eurostar ticket online, so all I had to do was show up at Gare du Nord Thursday morning, check in, sit down, and go.
Except I caught a stomach bug in Paris the day before.
And then had to get to London on zero sleep, an empty stomach, and a badly shaken digestive system.
And then had to get from London to Kingston.
And then back to London.
And then back to Paris.
And I did it.
On three bottles of Sprite and half a room service hamburger.
A testament, my friends, to the lure of seeing Dame Judi Dench on a stage.
(Still not a review.) Also: tip! Use the iPhone maps app. Seriously. I would still be walking in circles in the wilds of suburban London, talking to strangers, without that thing. Kingston needs to crank up the signage, because some of us are American and not geniuses who can intuit what "west" might be according to where the sun may or may not have set two hours earlier on a rainy day.
A Midsummer Night's Dream isn't my favorite Shakespeare play, not by a longshot, endlessly bored as I am by the troubles of juvenalia. Those four crazy kids will go on and on (and do, and did). But with Shakespeare the one thing you can count on is never seeing the same play twice; the conceit here is that Dame Judi is Elizabeth I, so enchanted by the fables of her courtly players that she decides to kick it herself as the good Queen of the Faeries (there's a short wordless intro where she enters as QE I, picks up a Playbill, then disappears). Thus as Gloriana is she bedecked, beruffled, and bewigged throughout, falling head over girlish, impish, rapturous, gleeful heels in love with a weaver in the form of an ass. And what an ass! I loved him, too, with his big silly head and his soft puppy eyes and those long, long lashes (played with perfect panache and tomfoolery by Oliver Chris; production stills here). The sad/happy sight of this 75-year-old woman, this dame, this queen, letting go with such ease, turned entirely upside down by this monster who almost doubled her in height—sighing with such joy, laughing with such release, piping in with a loud honking bray to match his, caressing his woolly ears with such trust and tenderness—ah, this was what I got out of bed and crossed the Channel for.
And I would do it all again in a second, the flu, the train, the train again, getting lost in the dark, getting lost again, the no sleep, the wavering hunger, all of it over from the start. It wasn't the jungle, for heaven's sake, but for me it was something wild, having to give up so completely any concept of familiar ground, and realizing I could survive there, by gut and on tiptoe if necessary, and enjoy it, which is the key, enjoy whatever comes, and nothing felt remote, it was all right there with me, visible, every detail—that was the gift I went seeking last week, the reason I went alone, and I write it down here, now, so I can remind myself later where I found it.