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A Midsummer Night’s Dream

by on 5 March 2018

Otherworldly and Magical

A Midsummer Night’s Dream

by Benjamin Britten, libretto by Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears, adapted from William Shakespeare.

English National Opera, London Coliseum until 15th March

Review by Suzanne Frost

Sleep is a funny thing. Humans spend one third of their life in the trance like state and then we dream, wild and wondrous adventures that may be absurd or surreal but can seem as real as anything that happens in bright daylight.


English National Opera’s production of Benjamin Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, an opera adaptation of Shakespeare’s popular comedy, takes the dream of the title quite literally: the entire stage is one gigantic bed with acid green sheets, the playing field that gets tangled and ruffled up with all the amorous action. A giant crescent moon is illuminating the stage. Everything, this production suggests, is a dream – the antics in the fairy kingdom of Oberon and Tytania just as much as the human lovers or the rustic mechanicals. All just phantasmagorical fabrications of the subconscious. Oberon, King of the fairies, (countertenor Christopher Ainslie) therefore fittingly wears acid green pyjamas under his acid green robe to match his shock of green hair. Queen Tytania (Soraya Mafi of ENO’s Harewood Artists’ Programme) matches her electric blue nightdress to her blue curls. The Trinity Boys Choir looks spectacular as a crowd of attentive fairy minions, an army of little green leprechauns with bright blue hair and butler’s gloves in fiery red. ENO’s stalwart in the costume department, Zeb Lalljee has rightly been given Associate Costume Designer credits in complementing Michael Levine’s inspired design. The vivid primary colours create images right out of a surreal LSD dream, the visuals are stunning and by far the strongest point of Robert Carsen’s classic production, now on its third London revival. It may be more than twenty years old but the minimal distinct staging looks fresh, modern and timely, otherworldly and magical.


Music wise A Midsummer Night’s Dream is not as smoothly digestible. The supernatural creatures of Shakespeare’s play are far from cute or innocent and Britten’s instrumentation evokes the danger and mischievous arbitrariness of the fairies, with unusual quivering sighing sounds teased out of violins; harps, celesta, gongs and cymbals used to ethereal and atmospheric effect. Britten’s music is challenging, strange, atonal, a bit alien and awkward.


I wonder why there are so many children in the audience. Just because it is a popular play doesn’t make it easy and Shakespeare’s comedies are always more or less obviously about sex. This one quite obviously. It plays in a bed! A poor little girl next to me couldn’t have been more than five and, at the mercy of some undoubtedly well-meant early arts education, she got twitchy feet within fifteen minutes. Unfortunately, she had another hour and a half to sit through: act 1 and 2 are played without interval and test the patience and sitting bones of even grown-up opera fans. I felt sorry for the girl and her family who left during interval. It can’t be cheap taking a family of four out to a show, but do your research – there is so much theatre in London for young people. Mozart or Rossini might be good beginner’s operas for children but Britten is not easy on the ear and it isn’t meant to be.

The empty seats gave me the opportunity to stretch my legs and enjoy the rest though, and the second act has images of pure stage magic you wouldn’t want to have missed. With a swish of his hand Oberon unveils three beds suspended in the air, a vision so dreamlike and Dali-esque the audience breaks into a little spontaneous applause. Again we experience another wondrous moment of enchantment from Designer, Michael Levine. As the beds softly descend, the lighting, co-designed by Director, Robert Carsen and Peter van Praet, can only be described as a post-coital glow. It is beautiful. King Theseus and Hippolyta, who I felt were rightly cut from the story line make a late somewhat unnecessary appearance to herald in the performance of “Pyramus and Thisby” played for everybody’s general amusement by the klutzy mechanicals, who throw themselves with spirit into a wonderful parody of romantic Italian opera, virtuously mocked by Britten. Puck, played with plenty of physical comedy by actor Miltos Yerolemou, nowadays probably best known as Game of Thrones Silvio Forel, is a mischievous pixie that reminded me of early Cirque du Soleil clowns, cute and funny and rough but also creating scenes that are dreamy and lyrical and tear a bit at your heartstrings.


This production is visually gorgeous in every scene but it is overlong and Hippolyta’s wish, that Thisby’s speech may be brief, is met with knowing snorts and laughter from the audience.

A feast for the eyes certainly but also quite a piece of work.

Suzanne Frost
March 2018

Photographs by Robert Workman

  1. celiabard permalink

    An excellent review, honest and at the same time complimentary.

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