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<em>A Midsummer Night’s Dream</em>, Royal College of Music
07 Mar 2018

A Midsummer Night's Dream at the Royal College of Music

The gossamer web of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream is sufficiently insubstantial and ambiguous to embrace multiple interpretative readings: the play can be a charming comic caper, a jangling journey through human pettiness and cruelty, a moonlit fairy fantasy or a shadowy erotic nightmare, and much more besides.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Royal College of Music

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: George Longworth: Puck

Photo courtesy of Royal College of Music


In his new production of Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream for the Royal College of Music, director Liam Steel seems to want to seek out the play’s, and the opera’s, darker purposes - to ‘re-instate the seminal strand of sexuality and abandonment at the heart of Shakespeare’s original creation’. So far, so good. But, when Steel decides that Shakespeare’s depiction of Midsummer Eve licentiousness was ‘a reaction to a fundamentalist society in the grip of Puritanism’ (when the play was written in 1595/96?) and that therefore it would be a good idea to set his production in the Weimar Republic - which, he argues, ‘essentially became the “Midsummer Woods” of Elizabethan England’, and which, lacking censorship and promoting sensuality, is ‘the world into which our lovers and Bottom fall’ - he steps, like Shakespeare’s mortals, from the path of reason.

Admittedly, the 1920s underground cabaret scene, in which sex and politics were served up as sensuous satire, might serve as a parallel for the liberation which Shakespeare’s mortals, fleeing from courtly and social mores, momentarily find in the forest. Indeed, Stefan Zweig’s condemnation of Berlin’s cabaret scene, ‘Amid the general collapse of values, a kind of insanity took hold of precisely those middle-class circles which had hitherto been unshakeable in their order’, isn’t so far from the experience of Shakespeare’s lovers.

And, there’s plentiful bawdiness in Shakespeare’s text, even in the opening court scene (omitted in Britten’s opera): from Theseus’s initial lament of impatience that the ‘old moon … lingers my desires/Like to a step-dame, or a dowager,/Long withering out a young man's revenue’, with its plentiful double entendres, to his declaration to Hippolyta, ‘I wooed thee with my sword/ And won thy love, doing thee injuries’, which may celebrate a double conquest, on the battlefield and in bed.

Moreover, the play abounds with meta-theatrical references and devices, and so when George Longworth’s Puck rattled the cabaret club shutters to usher us into the party, the invitation didn’t seem out of place. Were we to enter a Berlin Baccanalia where lovers swapped partners in a psychedelic trance?

No, is the short answer. Although, Shakespeare’s wood - as Britten’s score confirms - is a world ruled by a magic which conjures desire, delirium and danger in equal measure, Steel’s concept never comes close to matching this power of enchantment. Lights pulse in the darkness of Michael Pavelka’s mirror-strewn set, illuminated by Andy Purves’ streaks of colour and gleam. An iron-framed four-poster bed is wheeled back and forth, and the mortals’ ‘Shadows’ slink through the eponymous gloom, clad in black leather and lace. But, there’s little that is risqué, reckless or red-blooded.

Timothy Morgan’s Oberon is neither a monstrous tormentor nor mischievous mocker, though he looked strikingly seedy! While ‘I know a bank’ gleamed purely, Morgan struggled with the shift to the chest voice needed to project Britten’s low-lying lines with sufficient expressive warmth to assert the Fairy King’s authority - though, guided by conductor Michael Rosewell, the cellos and basses provided sensitive support. Similarly, Longworth’s Puck was more merry sprite than devil’s spirit and displayed little delight in torturing the mortals, concerned more with winning his master’s affectionate attentions.

Harriet Eyley - whom I admired very much as the Vixen in RCM’s production of Janáček’s own forest foray last autumn, and in Poulenc’s Les mamelles de Tirésias at the College earlier that year - was, as Tytania, once again tremendously glossy of voice, adding some much needed glamour. She was ‘protected’ by a fairy chorus comprising dulcet-voiced members of Trinity Boys Choir who, attired in evening dress and round, tinted specs, seemed to be ‘black’ versions of the school-boy sprites seen in Netia Jones’ Snape Maltings production last year. Not only were they ineffectual sentries - simply hoisted and carried off by the mortals’ Shadows - as apparently aged spectators at the show, they looked thoroughly bored. If they’d paid for the ‘cabaret’, they might well have demanded their money back.

Shakespeare and Britten juxtapose the reason of daytime, as advocated by Theseus, with the irrationality of the night, as ruled by Oberon, but there’s no such dichotomy in Steel’s production. Lauren Joyanne Morris’s Hermia may pack her suitcase during Britten’s opening ‘sleep chords’ - disturbing the glissandi dreams with irreverent hustle and bustle - but where are the lovers escaping from and to, and to where will they return? It’s pitch black to begin with, so there can be no sense of deepening darkness as the four aristocrats venture further into the forest. Moreover, what are a troupe of ‘rustics’ doing in Weimar Berlin?

Thankfully, Steel’s concept is so illogical that neither he, nor the audience, feel the need to ‘follow it through’. It was easy to ignore the anachronisms, though the frequent references to the moon were irritating, and simply enjoy some very strong singing from the Royal College postgraduates. I particularly admired the strong melodic lines of the four lovers, Morris, Josephine Goddard (Helena), Joel Williams (Lysander) and Kieran Rayner (Demetrius): the quartet made much of Britten’s predominantly scale-based lines and create dramatic distinctiveness too. All demonstrated superbly clear diction.

When Peter Quince and his would-be thespians gathered for their rehearsal, they might as well as have landed on the moon: their first scene was even more disorientating than usual, although Hugo Herman-Wilson’s Quince worked hard to keep ‘both’ shows on the road. The mechanicals sang and acted with equal skill but Steel’s decision to resort to the usual broad humour in the play-within-a-play was surely an opportunity missed. Britten may burlesque his own genre - Flute’s Donizettian flights were reputed a vehicle for Peter Pears’ party-trick lampooning of Joan Sutherland - but the ‘perfectly’ executed maladroitness of the Pyramus and Thisbe stage-business seemed a weak choice given the chance offered by Steel’ locale for more biting satire.

Every time I hear Ida Ränzlöv sing, I want to hear more! She stole the show in the title role of Faramondo at last year’s London Handel Festival, was a lustrous-voiced, haughtily-mannered Fox in the RCM’s Cunning Little Vixen in November, and also greatly impressed as the Daughter in British Youth Opera’s production of Judith Weir’s The Vanishing Bridegroom’s last September. Here, even though in the fairly small role of Hippolyta Ränzlöv had less opportunity to shine, shine she certainly did - despite Steel’s best efforts to subdue the Amazonian Queen by throwing, quite literally, some domestic violence into the nuptial celebrations of Theseus (confidently sung by Peter Edge) and his new bride.

In Shakespeare’s final scene Theseus speaks seriously and sensitively to Hippolyta. She is a vanquished Amazonian Queen, forced to marry her conqueror, but within the world of the play their courtly marriage is decorous and controlled, a symbol of concord and order. Shakespeare, as so often, employs a musical metaphor to confirm this: at the end of Act IV the sound of Theseus’s baying hounds is joined with the pitches of his horns, which are blown to wake the lovers, and the King declares, ‘Theseus: ‘We will, fair queen, up to the mountain’s top/And mark the musical confusion/ Of hounds and echo in conjunction.’ Fortunately, Ränzlöv’s vocal dignity injected some reason and restraint into the proceedings.

Timothy Edlin was an excellent Bottom, but in this production his ‘Dream’ - the heart of the play, and the opera, in which Bottom, in the words of one critic, ‘reconfirms himself as a comic mirror for the general human condition’ - failed to make much of a dramatic mark.

There was much fine singing, supported by excellent work by the orchestral musicians who, despite their small numbers, conjured Britten’s musical mysteries. But, Steel’s production has surprisingly scant dark disorder and no midsummer magic.

Claire Seymour

Britten: A Midsummer Night’s Dream Op.64

Oberon - Timothy Morgan, Tytania - Harriet Eyley, Hermia - Lauren Joyanne Morris, Helena - Josephine Goddard, Lysander - Joel Williams, Demetrius - Kieran Williams, Bottom - Timothy Edlin, Quince - Hufo Herman-Wilson, Snout - Robert Forrest, Snug - Conall O’Neill, Flute - Thomas Erlank, Starveling - Dan D’Souza, Theseus - Peter Edge, Hippolyta - Ida Ränzlöv, Puck - George Longworth, Cobweb - Freddie Jemison, Mustardseed - Ethan Hocquellet, Moth - Felix Barry-Casademunt, Peasblossom, Alexander Chan, Fairies - Samuel Adebajo, Andrew Ah Weng, James Blaire, Joseph Cassidy, Sacha Cooper, Simeon Wren; Director - Liam Steel, Conductor - Michael Rosewell, Costume designer - Michael Pavelka, Lighting designer - Andy Purves, Royal College of Music Opera Orchestra.

Britten Theatre, Royal College of Music, London; Monday 5th March 2018.

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