Friday, 5 August 2011

Midsummer Night's Dream at ENO

Pharaoh told them his dream; but there was none that could interpret them unto Pharaoh. Gen 41:7
The new production of Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream by English National Opera was powerful and fascinating.   The production was directed by Christopher Alden, three of whose productions I have seen in the last eighteen months.   Opera Australia has presented his Tosca, originally for Opera North, and Partenope, originally for ENO.  I thought Tosca was appalling and rantedabout it here.  His Partenope, which was within a now established tradition of presenting Handel’s classical stories in a modern setting, was effective in the theatre and allowed full scope to the singers.
I would like to look at why I was moved by A Midsummer Night’s Dream, when Tosca made me angry and annoyed.  Some critics were angry and annoyed with A Midsummer Night’s Dream and it is interesting to look at their reactions as well as the production itself.
Opera Australia has presented two versions of the work, the second of which directed by Baz Luhrmann was first seen in 1993.   When I wrote about a revival of thatproduction, which is set in Imperial India, I was interested in the extent to which both discrepancies between the text and the production, and the need for the audience to unravel a puzzle were important.   I want to look at how these questions affect the ENO production.
The ENO production is set in a school, probably in around 1960 when the opera was composed.  The single set is an intimidating school building. It is an exact replica of an unidentified school appearing  in a black and white photograph in the program.  
There is some mimed action at the beginning.  A tall man in a suit walks across the stage and sits against wall on the right near the front.  He takes off his tie.  A younger man in school uniform appears and sits beside him.  In synchronised movement, they both put on school ties.
The first puzzle.  Who is this man?  Perhaps Britten himself?  Perhaps Oberon?  A supernumery or a character?  And he looks strangely familiar.
I would have been saved some of the confusion if I had read the synopsis in the program:
On the eve of his wedding, a man returns to his old school.  Long forgotten memories of his schooldays come back to him in the form of a dream …
The man is Theseus in the Dream, and, I had I paid attention, I would have noted that he was sung by Paul Whelan, who I have heard and admired before and must have half recognised. 
Once the music began there was a little more confusion: on the first night, Iestyn Davies, who was to sing Oberon was ill, and acted the part which was sung from the side of the stage by   William Towers.  It took me a little time to work out where the disembodied voice belonged.  When I saw the show a second time a couple of days later, Oberon had found his voice. 
My beloved companion pointed out later that the synchronous tie tying showed that the younger man, who we find to be Puck, is the older man’s remembered self as a boy.  Or probably: the older man is mostly a bemused watcher of his younger self, but he is directly attacked by school bullies at one point.
To complete the transformation:  Oberon is a schoolmaster and Titania a music teacher, the fairies are school boys, the pairs of young lovers are older pupils and the mechanicals an assortment of school staff.
In the context, I did immediately wonder if the tall and silent figure crossing the stage was intended to represent Britten himself.  Some critics so identified him:
He is, of course, Britten, later Theseus (Paul Whelan), and in a stroke of genius on Alden’s part the boy whose lost innocence he carries with him through life – his younger self - is none other than the much-abused and put-upon Puck (Jamie Manton), plaything and fag of the manipulative Oberon whose affections are now diverted to a still younger and fresher “changeling boy”.   The Independent.
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.  Guardian
Others thought Britten appeared as Oberon:
The cruelty is in the identification between Oberon the stealthy paedophile and Britten the boy-lover. It’s done cleverly and tactfully, with no representation of physical abuse apart from a caning session: Puck’s trauma is that, having been picked out as Oberon’s favourite, he is then passed over.
And that, we know, is what happened with Britten and his boys.  Telegraph
Since the revelations about Britten's serial infatuation with a succession of 13-year-old boys — each one groomed, adored like a young god, and then brutally discarded — some opera directors seem to have decided that all the composer's stage works must be treated as autobiographical testaments of shame. Alden characteristically carries this approach to a sordid extreme. The Times
Or a bit of both:
For this is not The Dream but A Midsummer's Nightmare, based on Britten's experiences at school and his lifelong attraction to young boys.   Musical Criticism
( not all of the critics quoted were angry and annoyed)
As I don’t think any of this is correct, it’s not a worthwhile criticism of Christopher Alden or his production.
The Puck/Theseus figure is someone who is resentful and bitter about his school experiences.  It is true that, quite apart from his befriending of boys, Britten had a peculiar obsession with his schooldays.  For many years until his death in 1976 he used Letts Schoolboy Diaries; and I learn from recent unpublished research that as late as 1970 he was using blank pages in his old school exercise books for keeping notes.  This suggests a wistful nostalgia rather than resentment.  He was apparently successful at both schoolwork and games and was not, and did not see himself as a victim, though his recently published diaries show that he thought other boys in his study were “vulgar”.   The thing that distinguished him as a schoolboy is that he wrote huge quantities of music.
 Thanks to John Bridcut’s book Britten’s Children we now know more than we are entitled to know about Britten’s friendships with boys.  The ENO program includes an essay by Mr. Bridcut containing a passage which is a summary of his book’s conclusions:
“Tongues wagged and whispered, yet all these boys looked back - often with amusement but -always with delight – at the memory of a unique and unsullied friendship.”
Although we can dispense with the idea that the production is intended as biography of the composer, it’s clear enough that it is inspired by his life and character.  I don’t understand how this can be seen as offensive.  After all, Britten wrote Peter Grimes, The Turn of the Screw and Death in Venice which are  driven by Britten’s own need to explore and imagine the very themes which some now find it wrong to associate with him.  Where is the error in finding these themes in A Midsummer Night’s Dream as well?
 I previously quoted W.H. Auden who said that Shakespeare…
"..mythalogically anthropomorphises nature, making nature like man.." so that "..mythological characters are used to describe certain universal experiences which we cannot control."
Oberon tells Titania:
Out of this wood do not desire to go:
Thou shalt remain here, whether thou wilt or no.
Just as people might be trapped in their own personality; or a schoolboy trapped in an institution which is full of emotional strings and contradictions which he doesn’t fully understand.  So in this production schoolmaster Oberon writes Out of this wood do not desire to go on his blackboard, but also amo amas amat.
If we assume that Oberon anthropomorphises forces which are out of our control, what could be a better metaphor for this than the school in which we were trapped;  and not  permitted to  even desire to escape.   
You don’t have to look far for discrepancies between the text and the production, for example why a school mistress would favour a pupil because
His mother was a votaress of my order:
And, in the spiced Indian air, by night,
Full often hath she gossip'd by my side
is hard to imagine; but I have an answer: the Dream.
Dreams can be multi faceted and strange.  Dreams can lie within dreams. Surrealism was based on dream.  Why shouldn’t a dream drawing on school memories wooze in and out of a half remembered play, studied or acted in school.  “I woke up and it was all a dream”, is an old and hackneyed storyline which is rarely acceptable.  David Alden’s own staging of Tosca Act III as a hallucination is an example.  However, Shakespeare’s play is about a dream:
If we shadows have offended,
Think but this, and all is mended,
That you have but slumber'd here
While these visions did appear.
with at least one dream, Bottom’s dream, within it.
The Times says:
Alden has no convincing way of accommodating the six Mechanicals in his concept.
I can see overly clever schoolboys studying or performing the play imagining their sportsmaster (slow of study) and the grounds staff as the mechanicals; or even a snide and knowing schoolmaster planting these ideas in their heads.  Here the mechanicals and their play were presented as pretty broad farce, which I thought somewhat overdone.  A good deal of the comedy in this part of the Dream comes from Britten’s witty pastiche of bel canto opera in drama of Piramus and Thisby and the  subtlety of this was  lost.
The lovers were depicted as older adolescents and this notion fitted very well with their characters and music.  I enjoyed the singing of Kate Valentine (Helena) and Catherine Young (Hippolyta), Benedict Nelson (Demetrius) and Allan Clayton (Lysander).
The more I see Shakespeare’s plays performed the more fascinated I become with the protean quality of some of his writing and characterisation.  Every new production can throw new light on text which I thought was familiar, or present a well-known character in an entirely new form.  ( It’s hard to know where to draw the line between Shakespeare’s  conscious intentions and the ingenuity of some interpretations  of his plays.)
Even bearing this mind, the way in which Puck was portrayed here was quite amazing.  The text was turned on its head and somehow emerged undamaged.  Since this was Puck’s dream he was much more than the incidental character he usually seems to be.  And the much of the force of the production turned on the way in which his words were delivered.
Pucks response to Oberon's command -
I'll put a girdle round about the earth
In forty minutes.
takes on a bitter irony when spoken by a sullen schoolboy sitting on the ground and plainly intending to go nowhere  in forty minutes or ever.
Similarly Puck’s words which end the play, usually a bright and cheery good-bye:
If we shadows have offended…
are spoken by a confused and angry youth as if to say:  “ As usual I have offended everyone - as if I care …” There was no actual discrepancy with the text, it was all in the manner of its delivery.  It was a very clever idea which was carried into effect perfectly in Jamie Manton’s performance.
For me it was powerful and moving, but looking at some of the critical reaction, I wonder if a production which has too many puzzles and questions to be answered can sometimes defeat its own purpose: at least for those who get the wrong answers to the questions.