Britten and boys. Boys and Britten. It’s an unavoidable facet of the composer’s life and works these days and it lies at the heart of Christopher Alden’s radical reappraisal of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, just as the word “Boys” itself sits plump in the middle of Charles Edwards’s grey, run-down public school set.
There’s a whole list of reasons that some people are going to hate this production. Alden strips the work of glamour, magic, humour and any sense of whimsy. The Elizabethan pastoral idea of nature as a palliative to metropolitan problems doesn’t get a look in.
The slow-moving score is brought to a low, meditative level in the hands of Leo Hussain. It will stretch the attention of many but immerses the active listener in the delicate beauties of Britten’s subtlest operatic music without the flouncy distractions of more traditional approaches. It’s a reading as austere as the visuals.
What Alden gives it is a strong, often unsettling, concept that he follows through to the nth degree. The framework is the dream of a man (Theseus as a grown-up version of a rebellious schoolboy Puck) who re-lives the uncomfortable truths of his schooldays, centering on the manipulative relationship with Iestyn Davies’s predatory schoolmaster.
When Puck, superbly played by Jamie Manton, mopes, sulks and finally breaks down, we don’t know the extent of the abuse he’s been subjected to. It could be grief at the rejection by the older man, reflecting Britten’s apparent treatment of the youths he became infatuated with, or something much more sinister.
Certainly, Davies’s Oberon and Anna Christy’s schoolma’am Tytania prowl the shadowy corridors, passing a lad (the Indian Boy of Shakespeare’s original) from one to the other and bringing to mind Quint and Jessel from the composer’s earlier The Turn of the Screw.
It should be pointed out here that on the first night of the run, Iestyn Davies was suffering from an infection and walked the role while William Towers, shipped in at short notice, sang from the side. It’s as well that Davies was up to the physical side of things as his slight, boyish appearance, matching Christy’s petiteness, is crucial to the concept, both appearing barely older than their vulnerable charges.
Tytania, a prim, pencil-sharpening music teacher, when confronted with a completely un-transformed Bottom (Willard White in good voice), turns sado-masochistic, ferociously wielding whip and stiletto.
If there is any laughter, it comes late, with the mechanicals’ Pyramus and Thisbe flounderings, and then it’s a tempered humour that avoids the bombastic windmilling of most stagings of the tedious cod play scene.
The lovers (strongly sung by Benedict Nelson, Allan Clayton, Tamara Gura and Kate Valentine) work particularly well as schoolchildren, fumbling behind the bins and shedding school ties and book bags, as they enter adulthood under fairy influence. Nelson, in particular, holds out strong promise for Billy Budd, which he takes on for ENO in the autumn.
This is a thought-provoking and ultimately haunting realization of the opera and couldn't be more different from Robert Carsen’s previous, verdantly colourful, production for the company. It’s superbly thought-through and put together and musically accomplished.
The creative team was heavily booed at the first night curtain call, an indication that some found the director and designer’s vision difficult to take. Ignore such boorishness; this is another thrilling addition to ENO’s continuing, incisive exploration of the Britten repertoire.
- Simon Thomas
At the second performance (21 May), all the cast were restored to full health. Iestyn Davies was in superb voice as Oberon and whilst William Towers won critical acclaim for singing the role at the first night two days’ earlier whilst Davies walked the part, Alden’s superb staging no doubt had tighter dramatic impetus with Davies firmly placed at the centre of the drama. I can only reiterate Simon’s praise for the production which I found not only disturbing, but strangely beguiling as well. Sure, there’ll be other stagings where the more literal-minded booers from the first night can revel in Shakespearian whimsy, but for me Alden’s vision packs a visceral theatrical punch and offers a valid alternative to the Carsen staging which it has replaced. (Keith McDonnell – Editor)