Saturday 21 May 2011

Review of A Midsummer Night's Dream at ENO

How to avoid Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream becoming simply cute; that is a problem all directors face. In the play, a director has the freedom of working with adults. Bill Bryden's National Theatre production created fascinating amoral creatures whose presence on stage was ubiquitous; and there is evidence that in Shakespeare's time the Mechanicals may have doubled as Fairies.

But in Britten's opera the director is constrained by the fact that the fairies are, of necessity, young boys. We have all seen productions of the opera where time constraints have meant the fairy chorus did little other than line up in serried ranks. For his new production at the London Coliseum (which I saw at the premiere on Thursday 19th May) Christopher Alden seems to have taken this as his starting point; if the fairies are played by school boys then lets make them school boys. After all Britten is known to have had a series of close, platonic relationships with school boys. And to a certain extent this is valid, the Britten's fairies are not cute and there is certainly a disturbing element underlying the opera.

Alden and his designers, Charles Edwards (sets) and Sue Wilmington (costumes), set the opera in a 1950's school. The single set is a profoundly grim, grey school yard bordered by a 2 storey building, classrooms glimpsed through the corridors. The prevailing look of the opera is grey, with little colour and only during Pyramus and Thisbe do we have any significant colour.

At the opening, in silence, a man wanders round the stage, apparently re-visiting his old school. He finally sits down on the ground and falls asleep. He is joined by a teenage boy (Puck, Jamie Manton) who sits down next to him and echoes his position. Puck seems to be the Stray Man's younger self. But throughout the next two acts the Stray Man remains a silent participant and observer of the action, watching his younger self.

The schoolboy fairies, all in neat school uniform, file into the class-rooms standing at the windows. Oberon appears at one window. Iestyn Davies was ill with a throat/chest infection so he acted the role and William Towers sang it from a side box. Given that much of Oberon's action was limited and he appeared mainly in the classroom at the rear of the set or down-stage left (Alden's favourite position for the teachers to lurk in the school yard), it was a shame some way of having Towers shadow Davies could not have been found. Oberon is in buttoned up 1950's dress and smokes a lot.

Tytania (Anna Christie) appears at another window, she seems to be the music mistress. We are in Alden land so all is severe and the singers actions are stiff and stylised. Tytania is profoundly severe and unsympathetic in looks and this rather spilled over into her vocal delivery. The Changeling Boy (Dominic Williams) is her favourite pupil, one whom Oberon desires. Puck isn't Oberon's henchman, but his previous favourite, sullenly still doing Oberon's bidding but jealous and surly. This Puck never goes anywhere, but lurks in the school yard, observing Oberon's pursuit of the Changeling Boy. Oberon's magic is an apparently never-ending supply of cigarettes laced with wacky-baccy.

The lovers are also school children. We first encounter Lysander (Allan Clayton) and Hermia (Tamara Gura) lurking behind the school dust-bins. They never flee either. Demetrius (Benedict Nelson) is a rugger bugger with co-horts who jeer at Helena's (Kate Valentine) pursuit of him.

Here we hit a problem. Britten saw the three groups (Fairies, Lovers, Mechanicals) as different, belonging to separate worlds and each affected differently by the magic wood. He used musical means to differentiate between them. Alden blurred this, making both the Fairies and the Lovers be school-kids. Further blurring occurs, though some of the Mechanicals are school handymen, some are teachers like Oberon and Tytania.

At the Mechanicals meeting in act 1, Bottom (Willard White) sits on a stool and sews costumes. Alden seems to have made a most determined effort to subvert the usual portrayal of Bottom, but the result is simply glum. In trying to avoid the standard hackneyed portrayal, Alden has produced the most unfunny and laboured mechanicals that I had ever seen. It wasn't helped that Leo Hussain's speeds sometimes seemed on the steady side, with some passages rather over deliberate.

Tytania's bower was simply her luring in the school yard smoking with Oberon. The production as a whole had rather a lot of lurking and over portentous stylised movement.

In Act 2 the waccy-backy starts to take over. After a whiff of it, Bottom starts stripping off. There is no asses head, the horrified reaction of the Mechanicals seems overdone and pointless, surely the sight of Willard White's bare torso isn't that bad. Tytania follows suit, to reveal a very sensible bra, and they start a highly sexual encounter watched by the schoolboys. These are now transformed, all ripped clothing, shades and drinking. Bad boys indeed, we seem to be channelling Lindsay Anderson's film If. Mustard Seed and co. spend rather a lot of time tying the Stray Man up to one of the rubbish bins, whilst Tytania and Bottom's encounter turns sado-masochistic.

When the four lovers appear for the final scenes of Act 2, Alden seems to be channelling Lindsay Kemp as the four flirt rather coyly with polymorphous sexuality; as with much else in the production, Alden produced something which was self-conscious in its daring and rather than edgy, surely he could have followed Lindsay Kemp completely and had the lovers exploring all possible couplings in a more committed fashion. Finally when Oberon sends Puck off to get the four lovers, Puck torches the school.

But these echoes of If chime badly with Britten's score and for the finale of Act 2 Alden is reduced to parading the boys in front of the burning school and having the Stray Man meet a Mystery Woman. All very portentous. But we've looked at the cast list and finally worked out that the Stray Man is in fact Theseus (Paul Whelan) reliving his school days.

Alden's operatic fantasy on If comes to a grinding halt in Act 3, Britten's opera just doesn't go there. The first 2 acts certainly have uncomfortable echoes of man-boy interaction, which deserve exploring. But in being so very literal, Alden leaves himself with a problem. He solves this by having the Lovers and the Mechanicals all lost in a maze on stage, with Oberon and Tytania lurking in their usual position, down-stage left. The reconciliations are done in a dream-like way with large chunks of the nothing happening on-stage. Oberon and Tytania do finally dance off, with the music being provided by the fairies now conducted by the Changeling Boy.

The Lovers re-appear now dressed as young adults and join Theseus and Hippolyta (Catherine Young) in one of the boxes to watch the entertainment.

Pyramus and Thisbe was simply vulgar and crude. Alden's determination to break the mould led him to drop the operatic send-up in the mini-opera and replace it by vulgar farce. Starveling (Simon Butteriss) constantly moons at the stage audience, Snout (Peter van Hulle) is drunk, loses his clothes, pees on stage, Snug (Graeme Danby) is a thug who rapes Flute as Thisbe (Michael Colvin), with Jonathan Veira's Quince trying to keep order. The Bergamasque Dance is done in front of the drop and has them pretending to be a 1950's skiffle band.

For the closing scenes we are back to the opening. As Theseus has stayed behind and lurks during the wondrous closing music. Oberon's final words are sung directly to Theseus, telling him to leave. The balance in the ensemble, Now until the break of day, was distinctly odd, perhaps because the boys, Oberon and Tytania were all so spread out. Having Oberon and Tytania deliver so much of their material up-stage from within the school was a mistake as it left them so far from the audience, and from the conductor.

Leo Hussain seem to encourage some slightly odd moments of balance within the orchestra, particularly with the percussion. But the orchestra played well for him.

I came out of the theatre feeling numb and depressed. Quite a few of the audience left at the interval and when Alden came on stage there was a good mixture of boos and bravos, Alden's smirk seemed to say it all. The production was a success if it stirred things up, no matter how distant from Britten's conception.

All might have been acceptable if Alden had got coruscating performances from the singers. I have seen plenty of productions which I have come to like because the director has achieve such strong performances, even though I disliked the concept. Here, the Lovers sang well enough but I never quite believed them as people, the sight and sound just didn't gell.

And in many ways Alden just didn't go far enough, the production needed real edge and daring. Once you got over the shock of the concept, there was little else; perhaps Alden found himself limited by what you can do if you are working with children on stage.

William Towers sang beautifully as Oberon. The role lies rather low for many modern counter-tenors and you often get to hear rather a lot of gear changes. Not with Towers, he produced beautifully even and seamless tone from top to bottom. I would love to hear him to the piece on stage, perhaps not here though. Things might improve dramatically when Iestyn Davies gets his voice back, so that there is more obvious interaction between him and Tytania and Puck. Anna Christe sang Tytania efficiently but without much charm in the voice. I have only profound admiration for Jamie Manton. He is an ex treble who has appeared on the operatic and theatrical stage. His Puck was finely declaimed, and he did everything that Alden required of him.

Ultimately I come back to my thoughts on Terry Gilliam's Damnation of Faust. In that production it seemed simplistically reductive to simply make Hell a Nazi fantasy. In A Midsummer Nights Dream, by making the school connection to realistically definite, Alden seems to have been similarly reductive. Surely there is a more effective way of exploring the disturbing undertones of this opera. I didn't find the production disturbing and, rather worryingly, it seemed in danger of becoming boring.

I am fast coming to the conclusion that A Midsummer Nights Dream does not really work in a theatre this size. Most of my most memorable encounters with the work have been in far smaller theatres (Toby Robertson's Scottish Opera production anyone?).

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