Wednesday 25 May 2011

Ah, the innocent cynicism of youth

A Midsummer Night’s Dream, ENO at the Coliseum, London

In Shakespeare’s play, unhappy lovers and rehearsing workmen leave the civilisation of Theseus’ Athens and spend a night in the forest, where the Fairies rule. And in that dreamlike kingdom, they face the chaos of untamed lust, jealousy, and fear. Benjamin Britten’s opera dispenses with the opening scenes in Athens and plunges the action straight into the fairy domain, but otherwise it’s a close adaptation of the play.

But in this production, the school is the whole world of the stage, a tall grey building enclosing a yard, grey and severe. Is this the world of order that the lovers seek to escape? Or the realm of uncivilised passions ruled by capricious and sometimes malicious fairies?  The opera starts with unsettling, swooping strings and a slow-motion march of schoolboys along the school corridors, visual order over the dark musical threat of chaos. And then the boys begin by singing the fairy song, ‘Over hill, over dale ... I do wander everywhere,’ no angelic chorus but a spiky, sinister and amoral army.

Oberon and Tytania are rival teachers here, Tytania a buttoned-up music teacher who conducts her schoolboy chorus of fairies with a rigid wand, Oberon a Latin teacher who sulks, moons and smokes like an overgrown schoolboy himself, his closeness to the boys echoed in his countertenor voice. But it’s through Puck’s eyes we see them, in the memory of the man who wandered onstage in silence as the evening began, and who watches his younger self go through the intense agonies of adolescence all over again.

Puck is a non-singing part, and Jamie Manton delivers the lines with authentic teenage histrionics, as if despising the world and all he’s expected to do in it. And he’s clearly at Oberon’s command the way only a schoolkid with a major crush can be. So his feelings about helping Oberon get the small boy from Tytania are not so much ambivalent as downright tortured.

Today, in 2011, it’s impossible to avoid the spectre of child abuse, and director Christopher Alden must be conscious of parallels to the ambiguities around Britten’s own relationship to boyhood and to boys. Britten had a string of close friendships with boys in their early teens, friendships which have never been accused of having a sexual or abusive character. Nevertheless, now that any adult-child friendship is seen as suspect, Britten’s bonds with boys on the brink of manhood are not seen so innocently.

So how should we view Oberon’s casual intimacy with Puck, sharing cigarettes with him (the ‘magic herb’ which turns lovers’ heads) and involving him in his own very adult relationship with Tytania? Is it just favouritism which carelessly harnesses the powerful emotions of adolescence, or an abusive betrayal of childish trust? The pairs of lovers are all teenage passion, urgent incompetent fumblings underlining their declarations of love with a comic innocence. Puck is the eternal outsider, sneering at their unsophisticated pairings – ‘Lord, what fools these mortals be!’ – and yet sobbing with hopeless pain as Oberon moves his attention onto a younger favourite.

As the night becomes more dreamlike, the order of the school breaks down. Willard White’s Bottom acquires no ass’s ears, but an intoxication (perhaps there was more in Oberon’s cigarettes than tobacco) that has him stripped to the waist while the similarly unbuttoned Tytania beats him playfully with his belt. The schoolboys saunter around in shades, drinking and smoking. It gets hard to tell which parts of Puck’s memories happened, and which are his fantasies of destructive, jealous rage. But of course with daylight, and with Oberon’s orders to Puck to put things right, normality must be restored. The mixed-up lovers have fugual counterpoint to set themselves back in their proper pairs. Tytania has her cardigan and hairslide back in place, and the boys are neatly uniformed and lined up in the corridors again.

And grown-up Puck is now married, he’s Duke Theseus with his bride, now joined in the Coliseum’s box by the pairs of lovers, all grown up too and suited, to watch the opera-within-the-opera of Pyramus and Thisby. At last the grey yard is decked in colourful red and gold, and the home-made costumes just as colourful.

It’s glorious comic relief, as both Britten and the performers take the opportunity to satirise the excesses of opera. Willard White takes an extra-long death scene and runs out of music, surely his revenge on every overblown operatic death scene in his long career. And the ‘audience’ are as badly-behaved as any audience, chatting to each other and heckling the players until ‘Wall’ (who’s had too much Dutch courage) has to be prevented from attacking them. But once the play is over and the cheery red-and-yellow garlands taken down from the grey school yard, it’s Puck who gets the last word. ‘Give me your hands if we be friends,’ he sneers in his world-weary, recently-broken voice, ‘and Robin shall restore amends’. And, looking us right in the eye, he starts a slow, mocking handclap. Ah, the innocent cynicism of youth.


Till 25 June 2011


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