Friday, 6 May 2016

The delight of having both - A Midsummer Nights Dream

Lucy Thatcher and David North - A Midsummer Night's Dream - © 2016 Celia Bartlett Photography
Lucy Thatcher and David North - A Midsummer Night's Dream  - © 2016 Celia Bartlett Photography
Mendelssohn/Shakespeare A Midsummer Nights Dream; David North, Lucy Thatcher, Nigel Richards, Joe Sleight, Mark Hawkins, Ben Wiggins, Bebe Sanders, Frances McNamee, Rob Hughes, David Edwards, Michael Vivian, Outcry Ensemble, James Henshaw; Temple Music at Middle Temple Hal
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on May 3 2016
Star rating: 4.0

Mendelssohn's incidental music in a lively new production of Shakespeare's play in Middle Temple Hall

Joe Sleight, Sam Townsend and one of the fairies - © 2016 Celia Bartlett Photography
Joe Sleight, Sam Townsend and one of the fairies
 © 2016 Celia Bartlett Photography
Middle Temple Hall's connection to Shakespeare dates back to the playwright's lifetime when we know that As You Like It was performed there, so that the hall is the only surviving venue we have where Shakespeare's plays were performed in his lifetime. Temple Music now puts on a highly regarded concert series in the hall, so in celebration of the Shakespeare 400 anniversary, they presented a performance of Shakespeare's play A Midsummer Night's Dream with Mendelssohn's incidental music, we caught the second performance on 3 May 2016.

The production director was David Edwards, with Michael Vivian directing the play. James Henshaw conducted the Outcry Ensemble, designs were by Colin Mayes with lighting by Mike Lambert. David North was Theseus & Oberon, Lucy Thatcher was Hippolyta & Titania, Joe Sleight was Puck, Nigel Richards was Egeus & Snout, Mark Hawkins was Lysander, Ben Wiggins was Demetrius, Bebe Sanders was Hermia, Frances McNamee was Helena, Rob Hughes was Bottom, Bobby Hirston was Quince, Sam Townsend was Flute, Michael Luxton was Starveling and Scarlett Neville was Snug. Aidan Oliver was the chorus master of the women's chorus, with Jessica Cale and Lucy Goddard singing the solos.

Mendelssohn's music was written to accompany a performance of Shakespeare's play in Potsdam in 1843, utilising the overture which the young Mendelssohn had written in 1826 The music is best known from Mendelssohn's suite and the larger movements, Scherzo, Nocturne, Wedding March are all intended as intermezzos. Additionally there are the two settings of the fairy songs (Ye spotted snakes from Act Two and the final Through the house give glimmering light) plus much incidental music, either linking passages or melodramas, which hardly makes sense out of context. Interestingly, Mendelssohn confines these musical elements to the fairies and the mechanicals (the melodramas are there to enhance the magical moments from Puck and Oberon), the young lovers are played without any musical elements. In this Mendelssohn's technique was remarkably akin to that of Purcell in his semi-operas, where it was only the minor characters or the non-humans who sang.

At Middle Temple Hall, both play and music were cut, the play substantially so and the music slightly, to bring the playing time in at around two hours 20 minutes. But there was the essence of both to give the right idea, and the cutting of the play was probably true to the original Berlin performances as Henry Irving's famous London performances of Shakespeare were always heavily cut.


Middle Temple Hall is not a theatre, so at one end of the hall was the orchestra with a platform for the players creating roughly a t-shaped area around which was gathered the audience. The playing area was decorated with artificial grass and flowers, and the orchestra members sported flowers and greenery. The performance opened with the Duke (David North), Hippolyta (Lucy Thatcher) and Egeus (Nigel Richards) in evening dress (like many of the audience, as there was a gala dinner afterwards) mingling with the audience. The overture started as the Duke and Hippolyta sat down to listen.

Dress was roughly 1920's with both Helena (Frances McNamee) and Hermia (Bebe Sanders) in sparkly flapper style dresses, and Lysander (Ben Wiggins) and Demetrius (Mark Hawkins) in evening dress. All four were young and made ardently youthful lovers, each strongly characterised. Bebe Sanders' Hermia was sparkier and far less wet than is often the case, with Frances McNamee making the most of the wonderfully comic/tragic opportunities that Shakespeare gave her. The two men were unfailingly polite, rather charming in their monomaniacal love and much given to fisticuffs.

With Theseus (David North) and Hippolyta (Lucy Thatcher) in evening dress there was great scope for contrast when the two actors returned as Oberon and Titania. Colin Mayes' lavish costumes gave a touch of magic to the plain playing area, and referenced the natural world with North's exotic armour being full of bird-like motifs, whilst Thatcher's dress combined hints of butterflies with a sense of the exotic east. Both North and Thatcher brought a touch of imperiousness to their fairy roles, and really created a sense of sexy otherness even with rather cut text.

And the fairies? There were no cast members assigned to these in the programme, and during the Scherzo the mechanicals appeared with tiny puppets whilst larger puppets (voiced by the mechanicals) were used for the named fairies, a delightful and magical solution. Joe Sleight's Puck (in a costume that seemed to hint at birds again), was ideal, hardly fey at all but with a sense of mischievousness, and impish delight. He and North's Theseus had a lively relationship, perhaps not so sexy as can appear in Britten's opera but striking nonetheless.

The mechnicals were all in working men's dress of the early 1900's which of course means heavy suits. They formed a delightful bunch, with Nigel Richards barely recognisable as the slightly batty Snout from his oily Egeus. Rob Hughes was comically dominating but less manically bumptious than usual as Bottom, a nicely thoughtful reading, whilst Sam Townsend's Flute was wonderfully crestfallen at having to play a woman in the play. Michael Luxton as Starveling was almost upstaged by his delightful dog. I was unclear whether Scarlett Neville's Snug was a young man or woman, but it didn't matter as Neville brought great charm to the role.

Seeing the way text and music interacted was fascinating. The larger intermezzos set the scene and each had a little in the way of action so that we were not simply sitting listening to music, whilst the extra smaller pieces were all designed to enhance the text. The melodramas for Puck and for Oberon worked superbly, enhancing the magical element though of course presupposing a rather stylised way of declaiming the text. Using Mendelssohn's music has far more presence than a director might wish for in a modern production and this conditioned the overall style, making the performance more traditional, as well as making the actors declaim the text in the melodramas in a way they might not otherwise have done.

Director Michael Vivian brought a great element of physical theatre to the performance, so that both the lovers' final contretemps in the forest and the mechanicals had a vividly physical comedy element. He also made the most of the long entrances through the body of the hall during the scenes like the one where Puck (Joe Sleight) taunts the lovers and leads them to their final resting.

Conducted by James Henshaw, the Outcry Ensemble fielded an orchestra with 23 strings and whilst not a period performance this smaller scale altered the balance between strings and wind so that we didn't get a performance over dominated by string tone, as can often happen, instead there was a lively clarity to the performance. Henshaw's speeds were similarly lively and the opening string passagework certainly challenged the small band but the results gave a certain vividness to the performance. The short incidental moments were all beautifully characterised, pointing up the drama without pulling focus from the actors. For the wedding march, the brass were placed in the hall's balcony which created a wonderful effect in the fanfares, but did rather lead to ensemble problems. There was a choir of 14 female voices who vocally incarnated the fairies beautifully, with fine solos from Jessica Cale and Lucy Goddard.

This was a welcome opportunity to hear Mendelssohn's music in situ, yet the performance was far more than simply an exercise in archive excavation. All performers created a vital sense of lively engagement with the audience, making words and music beautifully complement each other.

Recommended recording:
If you are interested in exploring Mendelssohn's complete music for the play, then James Judd and the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra perform everything, including the melodramas, on Naxos. Whilst Jamie Laredo and the Scottish Chamber Orchestra record the complete play with all the music on Nimbus.

Elsewhere on this blog:

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