Shakespeare meets Lord of the Flies in Christopher Alden’s new production of Benjamin Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, currently playing at English National Opera. Set within the bleak grey architecture of a boys secondary school, our perceptions of the story are twisted round to another viewpoint, challenging our preconceptions of the classic play.
Sometimes it works. Alden has captured brilliantly the dynamic of the school setting; the bullying, the schoolboy pranks, the rife drug-taking and the indifference of the teachers (Oberon and Tytania) to their pupils are all worked cleverly into the plot with great success. Portraying the lovers as the sixth-form pupils also worked particularly well in the cases of Tamara Gura’s slutty schoolgirl Hermia and Benedict Nelson’s arrogant sports-captain Demetrius, adding another level of interest to their already complex relationships. Despite battling a virus, Allan Clayton’s gentle and easy tenor made him a compassionate and compelling Lysander, complemented well by Gura’s fruity and rich mezzo-soprano and Nelson’s grounded and robust baritone. Together with Kate Valentine as Helena, the four lovers produced a well-balanced quartet, with excellent dramatic interplay.
Generally, however, the setting is just too bleak for this production to really work. The general pace of the performance feels very slow and occasionally grinds to a halt altogether, leaving the opera somewhat stilted. The set and costumes are almost totally monochrome throughout, which rather over-reflects the feel of the music. Brittens score is dark and intentionally soporific, and needs visual interest to avoid the slippery slope into banality. Jamie Manton’s lethargic, sarcastic, teenage Puck was a clever idea (and performed with real conviction), but forgoing Pucks traditional manic energy, and having the chorus of fairies static as well, meant that another layer of excitement was lost from the tale. Whilst there was some clever and atmospheric lighting, the drab feel of the monochromatic set and the sluggish place of the scene changes meant that the first two acts passed very slowly indeed.
One of the highlights of the evening, however, was the play within a play, which was the only part of the production that really bubbled with energy. Performed with Pythonesque bawdy humour, bright costumes and a total lack of subtlety, this sudden injection of energy was a breath of fresh air after the moody sobriety of the preceding acts. Willard White’s Bottom was performed with great panache and humour, his famously dark and resonant bass complementing the comic role. Another notable performance came from Michael Colvin as Flute, who balanced a musical, ringing tenor with the hilarity this role requires. Graeme Danby, Peter van Hulle and Simon Butteriss as Snug, Snout and Starveling gave extremely characterful and energetic performances, and the sextet of mechanicals was rounded off superbly by Jonathan Veira’s solid Peter Quince.
A wide array of infections and viruses seemed to be making its way around the cast, but nevertheless there was some fine singing throughout the evening. The very brave William Towers had been brought up from Glyndebourne to sing from the wings whilst a suffering Iestyn Davies walked the role on stage. Towers’ mellifluous, colourful countertenor was one of the highlights of the evening, and matched Davies subtle acting perfectly. Anna Christy’s effortless, soaring soprano possesses a youthful quality without sounding immature although beautiful, this sound seemed a little incongruous against her matronly dramatic portrayal of Tytania. This reworking of the Fairy Queen’s part, however, was exceptionally comic, especially when she was directing the excellent chorus of fairies, conducting them in a manner reminiscent of Imogen Holst.
By far the best thing about this production was Leo Hussains exemplary musical direction of Britten’s masterwork. His conducting showed the ENO orchestra at their absolute best every dynamic nuance was captured, every subtle shift in harmonic colour heightened without being overdone. Particularly beautiful were Brittens haunting, spine-tingling string glissandi, and the flute solos that accompany Thisby’s melodrama in the play-within-a-play. The musical highlight of the evening was the final chorus, with Tytania’s soaring descant floating serenely above Oberon and the chorus of fairies, supported by some beautiful colours from the orchestra.
However, the superb musicianship of the cast and orchestra, and the near-perfection of the third act, doesn’t quite make up for the lacklustre direction of the first half of this production, which never really gets going. Although this is a show worth seeing for the excellent cast, chorus and orchestra, the initial listlessness is difficult to forgive.