A Midsummer Night’s Dream
ENO, LONDON In Lewis Carroll there’s an issue about who dreamt the dream that sends Alice through the looking-glass, and it bothers poor Alice to think it might have been the Red King rather than her. In Shakespeare there’s a frivolous suggestion that the events of that famous Midsummer Night may have been dreamed by Bottom. But far more serious is the idea behind the new ENO production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream (as turned into opera by Benjamin Britten) that it’s all been dreamed by Puck – on terms so dark and bleak that they become pure nightmare.
Directed by the always edgy Christopher Alden, the show opens with Puck, now grown up, revisiting in his mind a scene of childhood trauma. And the trauma is that years ago, when he was casting girdles round the earth, he had been groomed, abused and then abandoned (in favour of the little changeling boy) by Oberon. A victim of paedophilia.
In the process of reinterpretation, Shakespeare’s fairy wood becomes a 1960s urban school, Oberon its shabby-sinister headmaster, and Tytania a frustrated, spinster-ish music teacher. The quartet of lovers are sixth-formers in the first flush of puberty. And fairy magic is replaced by reefers, on which the whole school seems to be hooked.
Reduced to summary, this may sound crude; and in fairness I should say it isn’t. Alden’s concept is compelling, sharp, disturbing and immaculately realised by a more or less superb cast. Iestyn Davies (disappointingly without a voice on the night I went, and miming to that of William Towers) is the fairy king. Anna Christy mesmerises as his queen. And, Allan Clayton is as fine a Lysander as you could hope for.
With a boys’ choir strong enough in numbers (there are dozens of them) to be strong in sound, and atmospheric orchestral playing under Leo Hussain, it has all the ingredients to be a great show. And you could argue that its preparedness to tackle a taboo subject which perhaps does lurk in the interstices of Britten’s opera is courageous. But it’s also perverse. And cruel.
The perversity is in the bleakness. A Midsummer Night’s Dream is not a confection of unqualified charm: the fairies are ambiguous, and Oberon certainly has sinister potential. But in essence this is a story about the power of love, attached to a classic comic structure of frustrated marriage where lovers need to sort things out before they can unite.
In some ways the production is truthful to that story, with a cleverly imposed idea that Puck’s traumatic dream happens on the eve of marriage: he has grown up to be Theseus and needs to confront his childhood memories before he can make a good relationship with Hippolyta.
But whatever murky depths it touches, A Midsummer Night’s Dream is ultimately joyous, consoling and magical. Britten’s music is saturated with those qualities, and to deny them so completely in the staging is as wilfully perverse as playing Tristan and Isolde for laughs. It also means that no attempt at humour in the mechanicals scenes can work, because comedy gets no foothold in an emotional landscape of such desperate darkness.
As for cruelty, it comes in a clear identification between Oberon the stealthy paedophile and Britten – who, as the world now knows, had an unfortunate fondness for young boys. There’s no evidence that he abused them, quite the opposite. But he did burden them with a weight of adult love that left them confused and upset when it passed: the experience given to Puck in this show.
That Britten was in most respects a man of high moral principle can only have left him tortured by his own inclinations, which is doubtless why the theme of corrupted innocence figures so largely in his work. But everything I know about him indicates that, however unwise his conduct, it wasn’t depraved. He doesn’t deserve to be remembered in the predatory-pervert terms suggested here. And I can’t help thinking it’s time for the cheap thrill of excavating from his music evidence of his (no longer hidden) sexuality to stop. This new Dream is a vile example. Brilliantly conceived, but hateful.