This collaboration between the Royal Shakespeare Company and Garsington Opera, combining an abridged version of Shakespeare’s play with Mendelssohn’s Op. 21 Overture and his Incidental Music, OP. 61, works so well that it’s surprising few others have tried it. Naturally, the sylvan setting here lends its own magic, those bosky groves and arbours the perfect frame for this story of love and enchantment.
When the production moves to the Southbank Centre and on to Stratford, some of the visual magic may be lost, but one aspect which will surely remain is the wonderfully exact, buoyant playing of the Garsington Opera Orchestra under Douglas Boyd. Some of these players have been part of this set-up for twenty years, and this is no scratch band but a group to rival that of any major opera house. We have seldom heard the Overture played with such incisive brilliance, or the Wedding March given such freshness and panache, and it’s hard to imagine a more sensitive, lovingly shaped interpretation of the passages evoking the awakening of love and reconciliation. Special mention must be made of the superb Horn section, led by Caroline O’Connell.
The orchestra is visible throughout, with the pit covered to form a quite restricted acting area, and it is the music which, as the director Owen Horsley says, conjures the actors onto the stage; it’s entirely apt for the orchestra to be so intimately connected to the action, and it works especially well in the case of Oliver Johnstone’s Puck. The ensemble is led by the experienced David Rintoul and Marty Cruickshank, who play Theseus / Oberon and Hippolyta / Titania respectively, with perhaps more vivid performances as the mortals than the fairy monarchs, although Rintoul’s ‘I know a bank where the wild thyme blows’ was certainly not short on poetic impact.
The pairs of young lovers were engagingly presented, with Ross Armstrong’s Lysander the strongest of the bunch, and the ‘rude mechanicals’ made the most of their scenes. Forbes Masson’s Bottom and Chris Lew Kum Hoi’s Flute chewed up the scenery to hilarious effect, and you could not help but warm to Chris Nayak’s hapless Snout and Jake Mann’s endearing Starveling. Each time you see that wonderfully ghastly ‘play within a play,’ it reminds once more of what a comic genius Shakespeare was, his vicious parody of the ludicrous language of the conventional love scene (‘His eyes were green… as leeks’) as fresh and funny for today’s audience as it must have been over 400 years ago.
With a minimal set, dominated by a full silvery moon above the centre stage, the main visual focus is on vibrant costumes – as indeed it would have been in Shakespeare’s time – and is aided by Caroline Burrell’s atmospheric lighting. Fine choral singing from elegantly black – clad ‘fairies’ with two excellent soloists in Anna Sideris and Catherine Backhouse, completes the picture. This is a production designed to travel and to adapt to whatever settings might be available, so some enterprising schools may well want to stage it, since it’s an ideal way to introduce both Shakespeare’s drama and Mendelssohn’s music to a young audience. It was certainly the perfect ending to a superb season at Garsington.