” I know a bank where the wild thyme blows,
Where oxlips and the nodding violet grows,
Quite over-canopied with luscious woodbine,
With sweet musk-roses and with eglantine…”
I would have liked to have sprinkled this review of the new release by Roja Dove, ‘A Midsummer Dream’ ,with spritely allusions to the plays of William Shakespeare, all flowers and woodland groves, cleverly enmeshed, wrapped up with perfumed inspirations and evocations of a beautiful, English fairy tale. A veritable literary scent critique, if you will. But something, I must say, doth prevent me. Firstly, I am no way near as familiar with the plays of the Great Bard as I would like to be. And secondly, this perfume is, I am afraid to say, almost wholly uninspiring.
I know! How disappointing to begin such a promising piece in such a negative fashion. Well, blame Roja Dove. It would be have been lovely if this perfume had been some gossamer, romance-laden, Anglophilic, June bride masterpiece. A scent, indeed, to make one dream (as the finest perfumes often do), with that ever elusive aspect of the eternal and the indefinable. The promise was certainly there. When I saw the name on the white box, my olfactory curiosity was very much piqued . Would it be a powdered, Elizabethan rose, dusted with English lavender, sweet leaves o’ marjoram, and secret, undernote alchemies? Would it be Puck-like, mischievous and magical, a feast of the undergrowth, all green leaves, garlands, and bucolic whimsy?
I grew up in a town called Solihull, about half an hour or so from Stratford-Upon-Avon, Shakespeare’s place of birth, a charming little place with thatched cottages and rose-filled English gardens, where thousands of visitors go every year to walk through the Birth House or watch plays by the Royal Shakespeare Company, to traipse through the town in search of all things William; and I have great memories of lounging by the reedy river getting drunk in high summertime with my high school friends, sitting contentedly on the terrace at the Dirty Duck pub just across from the Swan Theatre, or looking wistfully at the tree by the water that was planted there by Laurence Olivier for the beautiful, and by that point probably mad, Vivien Leigh.
The last time I went to Stratford was quite a while ago. It was just my mother and myself, off on a spontaneously decided day trip. We had a nice day, seeing the sights, having lunch at a riverside cafe, just relaxing in the light and talking. Typically for me, though, I was much less interested in the historical facts and realities of Shakespeare’s life ( I was never one for those ‘interactive installations: relive how life was in Shakespeare’s time!! types), as they, to me, while useful for school kids’ education, are just too ugly. I remember, though, on that day, we went to the beautiful Trinity church where the poet was buried and walked through several of the famous houses connected to his life that still exist in the town; all perfectly and lovingly preserved by English heritage groups, as quaint and Shakespearian as you would hope they would be – though as I say I was far more absorbed by the atmosphere of the gardens and the feelings of the rooms than the historical facts and figures provided. In particular, there was an artfully arranged vase of black and dark red dahlias that utterly captured my imagination, placed against the wall in the black and white timbered room, bathed, against the thick panes of glass, in the motes of the afternoon summer light; flowers that were like a silent, still, portal into another time and place. At that particular moment, away from the crowds and the noise with the sound of birds coming in from the trees in the garden, for just a few moments, I felt it.
At school we read a few Shakespeare plays, I remember, and I quite enjoyed them. A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Macbeth, and Much Ado About Nothing, among others, and in high school, where I focused on just three subjects – English Literature, French, and German language, we read a couple of his plays in very great and exhaustive detail: Richard II (a bit boring: I couldn’t care less about armies, avarice, and the politics of the past), but also, far more fascinatingly for me, The Tempest, whose windswept and watery world I delved into with great relish. The language, the imagery, the strange ethereal beauty, this was probably the closest I ever got to really ‘getting’ Shakespeare, and that play is now part of my cultural bloodstream.
Aside a couple of nights at the theatre, though, I have never got as inside the great man’s brain as I would like to (please, if you are reading this, tell me your own greatest Shakespeare experiences), and just writing this is making me really want to start reading him again and find out what I have been missing. I once did see Othello at a theatre here in Tokyo, a few years ago, Japanese literary snobs and English professors ‘laughing’ along to the in-jokes and little, in built witticisms to show their literary prowess and deep understanding of the language), but despite my minor irritations – I never could abide brittle academia – I have to say that that performance of Othello was a heavy and intense night of passion and murder and intrigue. Everyone there certainly got swept up in its furious brilliance.
But, to perfume.
How do you capture the genius of Shakespeare in a perfume?
I don’t know, but I do know that, unfortunately, A Midsummer Dream is certainly not it.
” There is a willow grows aslant a brook, That shows his hoar leaves in the glassy stream; There with fantastic garlands did she come Of crow-flowers, nettles, daisies, and long purples That liberal shepherds give a grosser name, But our cold maids do dead men’s fingers call them: There, on the pendent boughs her coronet weeds Clambering to hang, an envious sliver broke; When down her weedy trophies and herself Fell in the weeping brook.”
This is ideally how I would have liked this perfume to smell (which just shows you how much I dwell in reality). Upon the first spray of the scent, rather than magic I smell instead something completely familiar and quotidian (and very twenty first century); not dull, exactly, but certainly not without platitudes. Something almost Paloma Picasso Minotaure-like (this definitely veers more to the traditionally masculine than the feminine), a fresh (but very confused) bouquet of grapefruit, elemi, cardamom, bergamot and pink pepper (why?), over more powdery – as we might expect – ‘moss’, orange blossoms, vetiver, cedar, and benzoin, with some wisps of orris butter and carrot seeds. If the list of ingredients makes the perfume difficult to imagine exactly, it is also hard to distinguish what it is trying to say to you when it is on the skin. It doesn’t fuse properly or have any discernible theme. I just get a vaguely sports-like fragrance with strong intimations of cheap washing detergent; nothing poetic, or English, or stimulating to my own febrile imagination, which I have to say is very disappointing.
Roja Dove perfumes are usually very thick with eiderdowny perfume love : all unguents and flower oils and pressed together top-to-bottom strata. They might not have the angularity and immediacy of more consummate creations by Guerlain and their like but they are often intimatingly secretive with compacted, concealing emotions and unreleased sexual tensions. I expect complexity and slow concealments in fragrances from this house, and a concept of a perfume that is based on a play of intrigue and gradual revelations would also surely have been the perfect opportunity to demonstrate further this sensual prowess.
Instead, though I might just be a fool, mad as Puck, misreading the perfume and not understanding its intentionally lighthearted, spritz love-poem theme, and could also probably do with possibly smelling it properly on another person (because “there is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so” – to quote from the play), at the price they are asking for this perfume, if I am absolutely honest, I think you would really have to have your head in the clouds, or the head of an ass
to fork out the money for this wan, unrealized little trifle.
“Lord, what fools these mortals be!”
(William Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night’s Dream)