Andrew Clements

Friday 20 May 2011


Really a dream … A Midsummer Night's Dream.

For once, in Christopher Alden's remarkable new production for English National Opera, a Dream really is a dream. Before a note of Britten's score has been heard, a man on the eve of his wedding and who bears more than a resemblance to the composer himself is seen visiting his old school and falling into a reverie – in the final act he is revealed to be Theseus, and what follows is a conflation of his half-submerged memories and fantasies, woven around his alma mater.

The presence of Annigoni's portrait of the young Elizabeth II fixes the production at the end of the 1950s, when A Midsummer Night's Dream was composed, and Charles Edwards's set and Sue Wilmington's costumes evoke that period and the claustrophobia of life in an all-boys school perfectly. In this recreated world, the "love juice" becomes reefers, and Iestyn Davies's creepy Oberon and Anna Christy's spinsterish Tytania teach at the school. Their tussle over the Changeling Boy, whom Oberon is clearly grooming as a replacement for the aging schoolboy Puck (touchingly played by Jamie Manton), becomes the pivot of plot and acquires a new dark dimension. The mechanicals work at the school, too – as burser (Jonathan Veira's Quince), caretaker (Willard White's Bottom), or binman (Peter Van Hulle's anarchically alcoholic Snout) and so on – while the lovers are sixth-formers, with Kate Valentine's Helena and Tamara Gura's Hermia presumably interlopers from a nearby girls' establishment.

Alden presents all this with consummate stagecraft, while, under Leo Hussain, the score glitters seductively. On the first night, Davies had lost his voice, and acted through the role, while William Towers sang it, very well, from a box to the side of the stage. Even this director can't do anything with the mechanicals' play except conjure a few good laughs, but otherwise in what can be one of Britten's least involving operas, what happens on stage is totally compelling, and in the end deeply, unforgettably distressing.