Christopher Alden’s new production of Britten’s “Midsummer Night’s Dream” at the ENO, is one such offering. More “Scream” than “Dream”, this interpretation resonates strongly with Britten’s own adolescent experiences and the dark forces of control, corporal punishment, seduction, rejection and favouritism, in five part disharmony.
Alden’s “Dream” is set in a 1950’s boys’ school, designed by Charles Edwards. Dull brick buildings surround the school yard in a stifling embrace. The word “Boys” emblazoned in slate grey above the doorway. The opening glissandi, in this context, seduce us, not into a world of fairies, but into the dark, dank demi-monde of the school yard and its politics.
Theseus (NZ born bass Paul Whelan) is present from the start of the drama, returning to the schoolyard as a man on the eve of his wedding. He falls aleep. As he lapses into his dream, (Alden creates a similar fegue into somnolence in his production of “Tosca”) his persona merges with Pucks’ and he vicariously experiences every emotional twist of the knife inflicted on Puck as he relives his adolescence.
The chorus of trebles is made up of the pre-pubescent boys of the institution, dressed in formal school uniform. They’re mostly seen through the school windows, looking vacantly out from the corridors, conveying a sense of repression and almost autistic withdrawal from emotion and the real world.
Oberon and Titania are members of staff, engaged in a destructive battle to win control of the Changeling Boy. Oberon is a chain smoker dressed in a retro knitted vest and tweed suit. Titania is an equally unattractive, repressed individual on the edge, with a penchant for sharpening pencils.
Puck is no humourous tumbling jester, but a malevolent creature between man and boy. As Oberon’s favourite, he hankers for and is controlled by Oberon’s affection and attention. Puck experiences his own personal agony (shared by Theseus) as he snares the Changeling Boy from Titania for Oberon, sealing his own fall from grace, underscored by the fact that as he matures, he becomes less attractive to Oberon.
Instead of dripping magical flower juice on his victims, Puck passes around a cigarette. The gentle band of Mustard Seed, Cobweb, Moth and Peaseblossom are a gang of lads with attitude, sporting skinny jeans, winklepickers, tight T shirts and sunnies, complete with fags dangling from their lips. The quartet of lovers is transformed into four senior students, and the mechanicals, a motley crew of workmen and sport staff.
You all know how the story ends. Puck’s final monologue however is delivered not as an apology but as an angry and bitter reproach that all but he have found happiness.
Iestyn Davies as Oberon and Willard White as Bottom delivered the standout vocal performances in the cast. As the non-singing Puck, Jamie Manton, barely a year out of school, is convincing, with the experience of his age an advantage in understanding the much younger tortured adolescent whom he portrays.
Conductor Leo Hussein and his orchestra were faultless, exploiting the tonal colours that Britten used for each character and scenario to heighten the drama.
The enduring power of this production is that Alden has recognized in Shakespeare’s tale, the parallels with Britten’s life, and has turned this opera back on its composer to expose his own dark youth. Puck could well personify Brittenbhimself. Alden’s production also dares to expose in opera, issues and complexities from which some might shrink.
Christopher Alden’s “Tosca” had a mixed reception in Sydney. Audiences were far more accepting of “Partenope”. When this production of “Dream” comes to Sydney – perhaps to celebrate the Britten centenary in 2013? – it could be a rude shock for fans of the much loved Luhrmann production. There are no fairy lights, special effects or rich silks. The integrity of this production however, may compensate.