Lord of the Flies meets Dead Poets Society in Christopher Alden’s new production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream for English National Opera. In terms of plot, Benjamin Britten’s 1960 opera sticks closely to the Shakespearean original, but it’s Alden who changes more by turning the story into the recollections of a man returning to his old school.
In making Oberon and Tytania teachers, the quartet of lovers six-formers, the fairy servants fags, the Rude Mechanicals maintenance staff, and the school a grey, penitentiary-style institution, this Midsummer Night’s Dream is undoubtedly a deep, dark affair. There is nothing automatically wrong with this, but, in spite of the intelligent insights provided into sexuality and homoeroticism, the entire evening feels subservient to a concept that cannot deliver on all of the opera’s facets.
It is particularly difficult for any comedy to prevail, which would be less problematic were it not so obviously striven for, with the children trying to make their uniforms look sexy, and the magical flower juice being substituted for reefers. In the absence of a lighter, brighter set-up, these touches feel more bizarre than hilarious, the drama drags, and only Act Three’s amusing ‘play within a play’ helps to rectify the balance. It is interesting nonetheless that lines that are normally delivered quite light-heartedly, such as those employed by Lysander, Demetrius, Hermia and Helena as they quarrel, do prove so successful here at capturing real pain.
The cast is generally good, with Willard White as Bottom proving the strongest of singers and actors. As Tytania, Anna Christina’s voice possesses a pleasing tone, while Allan Clayton, Benedict Nelson, Tamara Gura and Kate Valentine deliver handsomely as the quartet of lovers. On the opening night William Towers sang Oberon’s part very well, having only replaced Iestyn Davies at the eleventh hour, although a performance that features Davies’s counter-tenor voice will surely be something.
This production may be more valiant than successful, but if you can handle quite a heavy experience it’s worth a try, and Britten’s music, conducted thoughtfully by Leo Hussain, is always a joy to hear.
Until 30 June (ten performances) with start times of 18:30 or 19:30. Tickets: 0871 911 0200 or from the ENO website.
Photo: Christopher Alden's dark vision of a Midsummer Night's Dream, © Alastair Muir