A Midsummer Night’s Dream, English National Opera, ENO, London Coliseum, May 2011Posted on 20 May 2011
Three worlds: the fairies, the lovers, and the rustics, all together here in a secondary school. Oberon and Tytania are teachers, Puck one of the older boys, and the other fairies smaller boys; the lovers are sixth formers; and the rustics are janitorial staff.
It all starts in silence. A tall young man wanders the school grounds, hunches down and slumps in a sitting position, his back against a wall. A boy appears. The music starts. Only by reading the first sentence of the synopsis can you understand what’s going on: On the eve of his wedding, a man returns to his old school. Long-forgotten memories of his schooldays come back to him in the form of a dream … . Small boys step silently along school corridors. It’s a little unnerving, and the visitor is spooked. But is this a ‘long-forgotten memory’ or something suppressed in a hidden chamber of his mind? An essay in the programme about paedophilia describes, in the first person, a case of the latter.
Benjamin Britten’s music creates an aura of sleepy magic that becomes discomforting in Christopher Alden’s new production. The spookiness is broken slightly by the appearance of a teenage girl in school uniform, hitching her skirt up. This is Hermia, soon united with a teenage Lysander behind the large waste bins, and later, Demetrius comes on with other boys in rugby kit, pursued by Helena.
Our mysterious visitor inhabits the stage throughout, sometimes staggering in a dream-like stupor, sometimes asleep, as when the rustics, in the form of the janitorial staff, prepare their play. Willard White as Bottom is quietly sewing costumes, and when they do put on the play in Act III it’s a riot of colour against the grey background of the school, and very funny.
Acts I and II are run together without an interval, giving an intense atmosphere to the first part. In the second part, after the lovers’ problems have been put right and they are welcomed by Theseus and Hippolyta, his bride to be, the six of them occupy one of the audience boxes and enjoy the rustics’ spectacle. But Theseus has been there all the time … we never knew it, but he was the silent dreamer revisiting his old school, and Hippolyta already appeared in one of his dreams. Now all is well, or so we think. As the fairies are left on stage to give their blessing, Theseus takes leave of Hippolyta and is once again spooked. Will he ever escape?
Britten’s music was beautifully conducted by Leo Hussain, the boys’ chorus was excellent, and the individual performances were all strong. Willard White was superb as Bottom, showing excellent stage presence, as did Jamie Manton who was a wonderful Puck. Anna Christy sang a fine Tytania, and William Towers did remarkably well as Oberon, coming up from Glyndebourne at the last minute to take over from Iestyn Davies who acted the part on stage — he was unwell, and so was his understudy. Apparently Allan Clayton rose from his sick-bed to sing Lysander, performing brilliantly, and I particularly liked the voice of Tamara Gura as Helena. Paul Whelan as Theseus was remarkable — as the visitor and dreamer he was a fine silent actor, and as the king of Athens he sang a strong bass.
The set design by Charles Edwards emphasised a powerful and claustrophobic atmosphere for the school, well lit by Adam Silverman, and the costumes by Sue Wilmington were entirely in keeping with the production. If you want a traditional take on the story, this is not for you, and the production team certainly received some boos at the end. But if you’re willing to accept a representation of mysterious forces in the otherwise mundane world of human beings, then this is strongly recommended as an intriguing take on Britten’s opera.
Performances continue until June 30 — for more details click here.