A Midsummer Night's Dream

Benjamin Britten
Opera North
Theatre Royal, Newcastle, and touring
(2008)

Production photo

One test of any production of Dream, whether sung or spoken, is the depiction of the fairies: anything that smacks of the cute or romantic is a big "no!" as far as I am concerned, so when the opening scene of Opera North's production of Britten's opera was revealed with the fairies (young children, of course: this is Britten) all dressed in white shorts, tops and socks, with black wings, I confess I was a little... well, concerned. Surely director Martin Duncan, with his huge experience not just as a director of opera but of drama at both Nottingham and Chichester, was not going down this route?

But as the opening chorus progressed, a palpable sense of unease grew - and not just due to the music. These fairies were somehow unsettling, not identical but almost so. They were all blond, with the same hairstyle, looking rather like clones at different stages of development. And then it came to me: Village of the Damned, Wolf Rilla's 1960 film version of John Wyndham's The Midwich Cuckoos.

Thus, so quickly, was the "otherness" of the fairy kingdom established. The arrival of Tom Walker's Puck, faun-like, crouched, acrobatic and earthy, enhances this sense, as, of course, does Oberon's counter-tenor, a voice which, for me at any rate, always has an otherworldly character.

The fairy music, of course, with its gamelan influences, also serves to remove them from the world of the "normal".

Not, of course, that the lovers' world could really be counted as normal. Theirs is a psychedelic world of flower-power costumes, churning hormones and barely controlled sexuality. And of cruelty: both Hermia and Helena unfasten their tops to reveal their underwear, to which Lysander and Demetrius react in totally different ways, the latter scornfully rejecting Helena's offer whilst the latter is flooded with desire, only to be told to "lie further off". There's a name for girls like that!

And the magic juice of the flower has become a mind-altering drug - acid, or mescaline - and its first effect is to disorientate, so that Tytania, Lysander and Demetrius stagger as if drunk in the first stages of what is very definitely a "bad trip".

There is a sexuality, too, in the fairy kingdom, and not just the relationship between Tytania and Oberon.. I've always thought there was something of the pederast in Oberon's desire for the "little changeling boy" and it is no more overt here than in Shakespeare, but director Duncan introduces one scene where Puck rolls on his back, arms and legs waving, while Oberon scratches (strokes) him from chest to stomach and one feels that the hand might at any moment move just that little bit lower....

The world of the mechanicals is hardly the normal world either, for they are, as in Shakespeare, caricatures rather than characters, an idea which Britten develops beautifully in the play within the play, caricaturing grand opera. I found it hilarious, after Macbeth the night before, to see Verdi sent up so brilliantly in the music for Pyramus. Yes, musically the whole scene is pastiche but none the worse for that.

If there is a "normal" here, it is - most unlikely to those who know their Shakespeare - in Theseus and Hippolyta, and I loved the latter's increasing impatience with the silliness of the mechanicals and their performance, and the way in which, in their enthusiasm, the "actors" bump into or otherwise disturb their "audience".

What is also interesting about the way in which Britten has chosen to chop and change the Theseus/Hippolyta scenes and his selectiveness with the text is how this brings out, yet again, the underlying sexuality. The references to "bed time" seem more pointed, to assume a greater significance.

Sex and lust is everywhere. Love? Well, possibly. In the quartet at the end of act two, each pair of lovers hold hands, and then let go, then grasp again. There's an uncertainty here. The physical dominates.

It really is a fine production: performances (from all the cast: not a weak link either vocally or in terms of acting anywhere), set (Johan Engels again, this time with many sheets of translucent plastic - at one lovely moment the fairies press their faces against it, thus distorting and coming in and out of focus - and huge floating balloons), costumes (by Ashely Martin-Davis), and, yet again, lighting by Bruno Poet, this time bright and airy.

This really is a production not to be missed and, for me, brought Opera North's Shakespeare season to a fitting conclusion. Not to be missed!

Touring to Salford and Woking

Reviewer: Peter Lathan